The Power of the Dog Review: A Quietly Ferocious Portrait of Weaponized Masculinity

The film looks at times like a stiff-jawed period piece, but it ripples underneath with a prickly modern sensibility.

The Power of the Dog
Photo: Netflix

Nobody is where they should be in The Power of the Dog, and everybody seems to be searching for something, somebody, or somewhere else. Set in 1925 Montana, Jane Campion’s adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 book tracks the obsessions, miseries, and passions of a group of people who inhabit a cavernous house in the middle of a vast ranchland and make each other miserable until blood is finally shed. The film looks at times like a stiff-jawed period piece, but it ripples underneath with a prickly modern sensibility.

The characters’ sense of dissatisfaction is most fully embodied in Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), a cattle rancher who appears utterly expert in every aspect of his profession but also bored and looking for somebody on which to take out his frustrations. The easiest target is his good-hearted but somewhat plodding brother, George (Jesse Plemons), whom Phil calls “Fatso” with a tinge of malice that suggests that this isn’t ordinary teasing. When George sets his sights on wedding Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widow of marriageable age, that decision presents Phil with a fresh target to distract from his consuming inner misery.

When George brings his new bride into the Burbank home, whose servants and fine furniture seem ill-suited for the raw Montana setting, Phil makes her stay wretched from day one. Stuck between George’s passivity and Phil’s antagonism, Rose withdraws into silence and binge drinking with an ease that insinuates that she’s gone down this road before. She’s then joined at the house by her teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who becomes an additional target for Phil. The waif-like Peter’s fey mannerisms quickly draw the attention of the ranch hands, who, with insistent encouragement from Phil, mock him with whistles and homophobic slurs.

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But unlike George and Rose, who, respectively, passively accept and are quietly crushed by Phil’s war against all that he perceives to be un-masculine, Peter hardly reacts at all. The Power of the Dog’s first half establishes the deeply dysfunctional Burbank sibling dynamic and how it’s shaken up by the introduction of a woman. But the dance between Peter and Phil that’s the focus of the film’s latter half brings a spark of curious conflict and eventually a complex sexual tension into a previously somewhat static drama. This is largely because George and Rose are presented in somewhat two-dimensional terms, while Peter and Phil appear laden with secrets which they can’t decide whether to hide from or reveal to the other.

As Phil, Cumberbatch eerily amplifies that keenly observant demeanor that he brings to many of his roles. The man suggests a hawk, watching and lurking and occasionally swooping in to take advantage of people’s perceived weaknesses. Campion also shows him as a deeply traumatized man who plays the part of the philistine by stomping through the Burbank manse in his spurs and refusing to clean up for dinner. In such moments, we understand his theatricality as a way for him to hide his aesthetic sense (he picks out delicate tunes on his banjo at night) and intellect (a throwaway line reveals that he studied classics at Yale and one shot suggests that he’s an entomology hobbyist). Phil’s inner warfare makes for a knotty portrayal of self-hatred even before it becomes apparent that his worshipfully sainted memory of a dead ranch hand, Bronco Henry, is largely romantic and deeply covered in shame.

Peter is a trickier character to present and it’s a challenge that Smit-McPhee more than meets. With his sparkling white shoes, buttoned-up shirts, and paper flower-making hobby, Peter is hardly well-suited for the rough-and-tumble ranchland setting of the film, but he never appears as a victim. When a group of men whistle and jeer at him in one scene, he walks past them as though they don’t exist. Smit-McPhee gives Peter a quietly graceful strength that initially both irritates and confuses Phil, who for once cannot spot a vulnerability to exploit in a person, and then intrigues him with its suggestion of a freer way to live.

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Ari Wegner’s richly high-gloss cinematography and Jonny Greenwood’s unusually conventional score contribute to what can feel like an overly staid package. But the rattling interpersonal tensions and lack of simple emotional payoffs point to something more complicated. Campion is concerned more with the pensive give and take between restless characters than story here. Still, she pulls the tragic conclusion together with a sharp dramatic reveal that builds on clues she carefully seeded earlier with all the elan of an ace Agatha Christie acolyte. The Power of the Dog is hardly a mystery, though, given the almost comically perverse way that it ends with the committing rather than the solving of a crime.

Score: 
 Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie, Genevieve Lemon, Keith Carradine, Frances Conroy, Peter Carroll, Alison Bruce  Director: Jane Campion  Screenwriter: Jane Campion  Distributor: Netflix  Running Time: 128 min  Rating: R  Year: 2021  Buy: Video, Soundtrack, Book

Chris Barsanti

Chris Barsanti has written for the Chicago Tribune, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Publishers Weekly, and other publications. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle and Online Film Critics Society.

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