MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Western Drama/ Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie, Genevieve Lemon, Keith Carradine, Frances Conroy, Peter Carroll, Alison Bruce, Sean Keenan, Adam Beach, Maeson Stone Skuccedal/ Runtime: 127 minutes
Right off the bat I think it should be said that, despite making her last slice of cinema over 12 years ago, I sincerely do think that even though iconic director Jane Campion undoubtedly was busy with other matters, it doesn’t surprise me that her downright visceral new movie “The Power of the Dog” has left me thinking that it is also equally as likely that she chose to spend every single minute of those 12 years sitting by herself in the dark whilst also continuously keeping a blade nice and sharp. This is because not only is Power of the Dog a lethal dagger to the gut of a Western enveloped in equal parts cattle hide and homemade rope, but it also is a truly homicidally intelligent fable about the error of false masculinity that is so sharp and jagged that watching this slice of cinema really does feel like the cinematic equivalent of being out on the old frontier and getting bit by a rattlesnake. Yet although this biting approach for how Campion chooses to work with this distinct material may partially originate from the source material itself, it nevertheless is still a brilliant fit for a film helmer who for quite a while has been intrigued by the idea of flaws and weakness being the most constructive casing for a person. Indeed from “Top of the Lake” to 2009’s “Bright Star”, nearly every movie in Campion’s filmography revolves around the very narrow crossing between brilliance and madness as well as aspiration and self-denial. Suffice it to say that with magnificent work behind the camera and phenomenal work in front of the camera particularly to the revelatory performance by Benedict Cumberbatch I think it’s safe to say that Campion has not only succeeded on that front, but has also managed to give yet another top-notch slice of cinema that is easily one of the best examples of movie magic I have seen this year to date.
The plot is as follows: The plot is as follows: Taking the viewer all the way back to the year 1925 in the state of Montana, Power of the Dog introduces us to a pair of brothers by the names of Phil and George Burbank respectively. This dynamic duo are the joint owners of one of the largest ranches in the entire state of Montana. As a result, both brothers are extremely rich, possess a fair degree of power, and are completely self-reliant and able to live their lives on their terms. Sounds like it should be paradise on Earth doesn’t it? Well it would be…..if both brothers were similar in both their goals and in terms of character and personality. As you may have guessed they are not. Not by a long shot. Indeed whereas George is relaxed, tranquil, and a fairly decent man, Phil is ruthless, tyrannical, and bullying yet also brilliant and perversely charismatic in his own twisted way. As a result of their completely distinct personalities and approaches to life, we see that this duo have (wisely?) chosen to conduct themselves in a manner that is completely independent of the other despite living on the same property and even sharing the same room together. Indeed Phil takes care of both the cattle and the day to day around the ranch which he lords over courtesy of fanatically utilizing the methods that were passed down to him by a mentor named Bronco Henry whilst George handles the finances and is the face of the ranch in terms of PR opportunities including whenever no less an influential figure than the Governor of Michigan decides to come a’calling. It isn’t long though before we see that change is on the horizon for our pair of brothers. Change that starts when George falls in love and subsequently weds a woman by the name of Rose. A kind and sweet woman who not only owns a restaurant in town that the ranch team frequents when they bring cattle to town, but whose shy and slightly effeminate son Peter has been the tragic target of malicious and ruthless bullying by Phil and who has gone after the boy time and time again with hurtful comments and viciously homophobic slanders. Of course, we soon see that Rose’s arrival on to the ranch estate has quite the impact on Phil and not in a good way. Rather, he sees this as no more and no less than a personal affront to his way of life and decides to declare a sort of “war” on this woman he sees as an enemy invader and attempts to begin utilizing everything he can in an effort to make her life with George a downright living and waking nightmare in every sense of the word thus igniting a conflict that will come to incorporate Peter and also irrevocably change the lives of everyone involved forever in ways that perhaps it is best if you just see for yourself….
Now in terms of the work done behind the camera, I can honestly say that it is all absolutely stellar in every sense of the word starting with the work done at the helm of this slice of cinema. Of course, this most assuredly makes a lot of sense when you find out that this film’s helmer is none other than Jane Campion, an iconic helmer who will never see the label of incompetence attached to her let alone have it be claimed that she has no idea of how to direct a movie and get the most emotional impact out of it that she can. Indeed this is the helmer who placed Holly Hunter smackdab in the wilds of New Zealand in the 19th century in her 1993 film The Piano, regaled audiences with the tale of iconic writer John Keats from the perspective of the woman who loved him in 2009’s Bright Star and was even able to transform one of the 80s and 90s most iconic leading ladies Meg Ryan into a film noir hero in the 2003 film In the Cut which has seen critical reappraisal in the years since its release. Suffice it to say that Campion is a tough as nails and strong willed director to say nothing of a master crafter in the art form she has chosen and this slice of cinema most assuredly proves that and then some. This is especially true in regards to the work done by the cinematography department in making the truly jaw-droppingly gorgeous backdrops of present day New Zealand really feel like 1920s Montana. Indeed every shot of everything from the mountains in all their majesty and the landscape in all its desolate beauty don’t feel like mere shots in a slice of cinema; rather each of them feels like no more and no less than art at its finest and it’s a testament to the cinematography team led by Ari Wegner in making that a possibility. Yet perhaps the most intriguing element to this slice of cinema is how in all of Campion’s other movies to date she has chosen to place her directorial concentration on female protagonists and the various trials and tribulations they find themselves dealing with. In this one however we see that Campion’s main character is not only male, but also one that is equal parts bullying machismo and arrogantly assertive in nature to boot. It is with that in mind that I suspect this is the reason that this slice of cinema chooses not to engage in the brutal and visceral showdown that it seems to want to happen by the end, to say nothing of being the outcome that the character of Phil seems to want to happen. Indeed this slice of cinema is not going to play by his rules and instead is more content with pulling back the curtain on this “game” and revealing it as a façade albeit one constructed on a riveting foundation that is equal parts frontier tall tales, masculinity, bullying tactics, and just outright denial. Above all though, definitely know that as with the rest of Ms. Campion’s filmography, this slice of cinema is one that most assuredly will ask two things of those of you who choose to watch it. One is an immense attention span and the other is a significant degree of patience. Patience that I promise will be made worth it even more so if you choose to watch this slice of cinema multiple times. Suffice it to say that this slice of cinema is one that both pulls you in and requires you to soak up as much as you possibly can. Yes that might be a lot to ask, but if you are willing to give it those two things I promise you will be rewarded with a truly majestic cinematic experience that is one of the best examples of movie magic this year.
Yet perhaps even more impressive than the work done behind the camera is the electrifying and downright riveting work done by the phenomenally talented cast of performers in front of the camera. Indeed for all the heaps of praise that this review has managed to bestow on the technical aspects of this slice of cinema behind the camera, I definitely think it would not be right in the least if I didn’t take off my hat in respect to the truly phenomenal cast who not only breathe life into the narrative, but also into making their characters as three dimensional as well. This starts with icon of both stage and screen Benedict Cumberbatch, whose presence is always welcome no matter how big or small his role may be, and he is just downright magnificent in the role of Phil Burbank to the point that I will easily say that this is one performance that most assuredly deserves an Oscar nod (as for whether it deserves to win or not I can’t say, but that’s also because the work done this year by Denzel Washington and Will Smith is pretty steep competition). At any rate, Cumberbatch’s Phil is a true maelstrom in the worst way possible. Yet even though Phil is tyrannical, quite ruthless, downright bullying, and immensely protective of what is his much in the way that Cerberus the Hell Hound would be if you threw him a chew toy or bone to fight over, we also see that Cumberbatch and Campion are also able to give this character multiple layers that, when peeled, reveal a man who is very much unable to show emotion let alone admit that he can be just as insecure as anyone. Suffice it to say that Cumberbatch manages to do an amazing job at giving us a character that is not only equal parts electrifying and revolting, but is also without a doubt yet another standout role in this truly iconic thespian’s cinematic career. The other standout performance here would have to be Kodi Smit-McPhee in the role of Peter. Indeed despite the role not really becoming an integral part of the narrative until over halfway through the movie, McPhee still gives us a character that is equal parts decent, caring, and delicate whilst also downright engaging in his own right and more than capable of standing his own alongside Cumberbatch in their scenes together. Now in the role of Rose, Kirsten Dunst does a wonderful job at giving us an emotionally wounded person who attempts to put her life back together only to find her chance at happiness turned into an all-out war zone whilst Jesse Plemons is, as par for the course with him, terrific in the role of the decent and upstanding George. Suffice it to say that the performances in this slice of cinema are nothing short of fanfreakingtastic and definitely worth any awards attention bestowed upon them.
All in all much in the same vein as this slice of cinema’s literary source material resulted in the iconic writer Thomas Savage being able to show some hidden writer muscle he was able to construct thanks to living a life that in some ways was an eerie reflection of main character Phil’s, so too can it be said that film helmer Jane Campion’s just as riveting cinematic yarn manages to transform repressed emotions and feelings into a surprising showcase of power from a human being. Indeed featuring phenomenal work behind the camera, and downright electrifying work in front of the camera with particular regard to the powerful performance by Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog is one cinematic animal that hooks into you so swiftly and viscerally that you might not feel the impact of the bite until film’s end, but will also be one that long after it is done will leave you with a fairly well-deserved dueling scar to boast of in the best way possible. On a scale of 1-5 I give The Power of the Dog “2021” a solid 4 out of 5.