Review: The magnificent tension and potency in ‘The Power of the Dog’

Review: The magnificent tension and potency in 'The Power of the Dog'

Exploring power dynamics between monstrous and meek humans, Jane Campion directs one of the best films of the year
Published: November 15, 2021
BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH as PHIL BURBANK, KODI SMIT-McPHEE as PETER stand in a barn in THE POWER OF THE DOG.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank (left), Kodi Smith-McPhee as Peter (right) in 'The Power of the Dog.'

Only a Jane Campion film achieves such exultant beauty in a simple shot of hands dipping into a metal bucket filled with water. Her film The Power of the Dog is based on a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage. This western masterpiece grips the audience by the throat, only releasing to rest in the mud-soaked sensuality and uncivilized landscape of the American West.

Campion’s mastery in depicting human desire and power dynamics is supported by unforgettable performances by the entire cast. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemmons play Phil and George Burbank, two dissimilar brothers running an expansive ranch in 1925 Montana. Phil’s domineering masculinity and George’s frustrating meekness form an unbalanced but well-rehearsed relationship. They still sleep together in the same rickety bed from their childhood.

Phil exerts power over every inch of his desolate kingdom. “To play this complex, controlling monster, Cumberbatch focused on the role’s physicality as never before, learning to ride, working with animals, fully embodying Phil’s visceral dominance of his environment,” writes Roslyn Sulcas in a Nov. 4 New York Times article.

George marries fragile widow Rose, played by a tremulous Kirsten Dunst. This union lurches Phil’s domain from its routine when George moves her and her ​​spurious son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) into the large house, which was devoid of guests. Phil skulks around, needling mother and son to within an inch of their sanity. Dunst perfects Rose’s simmering anxiety, the character growing more desperate with every passing day. 

KIRSTEN DUNST stands in a red sweater in a windswept field in film The Power of the Dog
Kirsten Dunst as Rose Gordon in 'The Power of the Dog.'

Cumberbatch plays Phil with a severe sensuality worthy of awe and many awards. His sharp cruelty early in the film disgusts while — after he has revealed secret desires he softens.

The musical score plays a pivotal role in the storytelling of this film. The musical score voices the character’s unspoken yearnings worthy of Freud’s couch. The insidious sound of Phil’s banjo — an instrument that still sets teeth on end ever since the 1972  film Deliverance –– echoes throughout the house. Rose sees her piano as an instrument of torment instead of a source of comforting expression. The music from Jonny Greenwood’s score sears with tension as the characters track one another like prey, waiting for the inevitable detonation of desire and power.

Ari Wegner’s cinematography displays New Zealand’s South Island (standing in for Montana) in mesmerizing warmth and grandeur. All of these elements, deftly orchestrated by Campion, produce a work of art that’s as unpredictable as it is exquisite.

Campion’s feature-length film résumé is annoyingly short. It’s almost as if she exhausts all her talent into one magnificent film, then waits years building it back up again. But when she executes a film like The Power of the Dog, her fanatics are willing to wait another 12 years.

The Power of the Dog will be released in theaters on Nov. 17 and stream on Netflix on Dec. 1.

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH as PHIL BURBANK, JESSE PLEMONS as GEORGE BURBANK ride horses in THE POWER OF THE DOG
Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank (left), Jesse Plemons as George Burbank in 'The Power of the Dog.'
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