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TIFF 2021 Review: The Power of the Dog – “A vast, epic western”

Image Courtesy of TIFF

Westerns are not my particular genre of choice when it comes to film.  Yet there was something that drew me towards watching The Power of the Dog, that wasn’t just the rave reviews coming out of its Venice premiere.  Perhaps it was Jane Campion returning behind the camera for a feature for the first time since 2009’s Bright Star.  Or perhaps it was trying to picture Benedict Cumberbatch as a cowboy, something I couldn’t quite wrap my head around.  Regardless, I’m glad I saw it.  The film, headed to Netflix this December after a limited theatrical release, will undoubtedly be one of the streamer’s hopes for a best picture Oscar nomination (possible win?) this year.

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The film, which Campion also adapted from Thomas Savage‘s novel of the same name, follows two brothers, Phil (Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) who have run the family cattle ranch over the last 25 years.  The two are close, even sharing the same bedroom, but couldn’t be more different.  George seems to be the more business minded of the two, soft spoken and unassuming.  Conversely, Phil has the command and respect of the ranch hands that work upon the land, they follow his every move and hang upon his every word.  He also has the ability to be a cruel and harsh individual.  This is especially true when, during a cattle drive, they arrive at the Red Mill for room and board and come across Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a young man that Phil sees as an outcast, timid, lacking toughness and machismo, qualities he clearly reveres.  His mother, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widower, sheds tears at Phil’s cruelty towards her son, bringing George in to comfort her.

The two brothers become distanced and at odds with one another when Rose and George eventually marry.  Phil is particularly hostile towards Rose, who is frightened of him, and the psychological hold he has over her escalates with each callous and vicious interaction.  He makes her life more difficult at every turn, despite George trying to make her feel comfortable.  With tension rising in the household, Rose leans on alcohol for comfort.  When Peter returns from boarding school, dreading even seeing Phil, he finds his mother a shadow of her former self.  But he also finds out some information about Phil’s old mentor, Bronco Henry, that causes him to look at Phil in a different light and exposes an underlying reason for Phil’s cruelty.

Any doubt I had about Cumberbatch being able to play a cowboy, let alone a vile and villainous one, was erased within the first minutes of this film.  Indeed Cumberbatch has such a drastic transformation into the dirt covered, tough-as-nails, menacing Phil, that it becomes one of his best performances to date.  I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if he earns his next Oscar nomination, his first since 2014’s The Imitation Game.  This isn’t to detract from the performances of the others in the cast which are all remarkably strong.  Kodi Smit-McPhee, who doesn’t become a main player until the latter half of the film, more than makes up for his lack of screen time in the front end, when Peter arrives unapologetically himself and a stark contrast to the overtly masculine culture at the ranch.  Yet you always have the impression of more going on under Peter’s curious, quiet, artistic exterior.  Look for McPhee, and even possibly Dunst, to enter the awards conversation too.

The Power of the Dog has a cast and performances that might be enough for many to rest their laurels on, but the rest of the film is just as meticulously made, not surprising for a filmmaker like Campion.  With simply stunning cinematography from Ari Wegner, Campion’s native New Zealand steps in for 1925 Montana in breathtaking landscapes and lighting.  The score from Jonny Greenwood (who also composed the score to another high profile TIFF entry, Spencer) is also a memorable accompaniment.  That everything in The Power of the Dog perhaps just unfolds a little too slowly is the only critique, yet patience is a virtue.  It gives you more time to truly appreciate Jane Campion’s accomplishment with this film – a vast, epic western that looks at the effects of toxic masculinity, stereotype and expectation, repression of one’s true self, and what can happen when you finally see yourself in the mirror.

Note: For those sensitive to scenes including animals in film – there are scenes of cruelty towards a horse, injury to and dissection of a rabbit, amongst other scenes depicting cattle being castrated and butchered (as one might expect for a western).

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