Two Thumbs Up for One Bad
Tale of Toxic Masculinity is Best in Show (****)
Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a mean son of a gun. He runs his 1925
Montana ranch with his brother George (Jesse Plemons) like a dictator. Where
George is a kinder, gentler soul, Phil controls things with a cruel iron fist.
With pursed lips adorning a scowling face, Phil exudes intimidation and awe
amongst his acolytes. Anyone and everyone can be subject to his verbal abuse –
he is even prone to calling George “Fatso.” He bullies and taunts others with
the glee of a sadist, and on more than one occasion exhibits homophobic
tendencies. Suffice to say: when you’re around Phil it’s best to tread
carefully, and even then you may not be able to escape his wrath.
While watching The Power of the Dog (2021), I began to wonder why I should be
interested in following such a nasty character. But as we move further into the
narrative, Phil’s layers start to peel away, revealing a person suffering under
pain, loss, and the inability to truly be himself. Writer/director Jane Campion
adapts Thomas Savage’s novel with a keen focus on details. She crafts the
central character not with broad strokes but with precision and finesse. We see
it in the way he carries himself, how he smokes a cigarette, ties a rope,
handles a saddle, etc. It’s these little moments that build up an entire history
of Phil – digging beneath the gruff exterior to find the vulnerability he tries
so desperately to conceal.
This revelation begins when George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst) a widow with an
effeminate, college-age son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). In an early scene, we see
the extent of Phil’s cruelty, teasing Peter for crafting paper into flowers.
When George brings Rose to the ranch to live, Phil’s meanness intensifies. He
calls Peter a “Nancy” for his thin frame and the unmasculine way he carries
himself. Phil calls Rose a “schemer,” and harshly torments her when she is
unable to play a tune on the piano. But the toxicity Phil spews only hides the
insecurities he has for himself. He is a person in constant inner conflict, to
the point that he rejects his ivy league education and privileged upbringing. He
bathes in a nearby lake while simultaneously covering himself in mud.
Metaphorically, Phil sees himself as dirty, wanting to wash himself of the past
even though he knows he could never escape it.
The acting all around is excellent. Jesse Plemons inhabits George as a good
natured but simple-minded brother. He loves Rose and Phil equally but is unable
to mend the disconnect between them. Kirsten Dunst plays Rose as a person who
wants to make a good impression, but whose apprehension and angst nearly drives
her up the wall. As Phil’s harassment builds, so does her desperation for
escape. It’s a showy performance, but Dunst doesn’t allow it to go over the top
– every moment feels appropriate. And Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Peter is an intelligent
and observant young man – not nearly as helpless or weak as Phil may have first
surmised. In a way, Peter senses the secrets Phil bottles in, and his
interactions with him doesn’t suggest fear so much as empathy.
Benedict Cumberbatch has never been better. He balances both the tough and soft
side of Phil with equal effectiveness. The performance is moving in the way it
is so understated. He tells us everything we need to know without having to
explicitly say it. Notice the way he speaks highly of his long dead friend and
mentor, Bronco Henry – even creating a small shrine in his memory. Or in the way
he walks around the ranch, always with purpose, only stopping to admire the
rolling hills that surround the property. There is specific focus put on
Cumberbatch’s hands, in how he handles rope or skins game or plays his banjo.
All these pieces come together to create a full view of who Phil is, and
Cumberbatch presents them in a finely tuned delivery.
Just like she did in The Piano (1993) Campion utilizes the landscape to create a
subtle dreamlike quality. Although the setting is in Montana, the film was shot
in her native New Zealand, and that adds an air of otherworldliness. The art
direction and set design surrounds the ranch with hills and mountains. When fall
and winter comes, the entire area is covered in a light snow, amplifying the
sense of isolation. Ari Wegner’s cinematography captures the dark rock
formations scattering into the horizon. In doors, the camera creeps around
corners and down hallways, creating a mild by resonating dread. Watch how the
frame slowly zooms in on Rose playing the piano, with Phil taunting her from
another room. The stop and go of the visuals create a suspenseful, eerie style.
Jonny Greenwood continues his streak of excellent scores, this time going for
moody, somber rhythms that complement the story instead of being a distraction.
In tone and style, the film plays a lot like There Will Be Blood (2007) in how
mood and atmosphere reflect the mindset of the characters.
The tragedy of The Power of the Dog lies in how characters must suppress their
inner selves from the outside world. Just like the protagonist of Moonlight
(2016), Phil has warped his view of what it means to be a man, what it means to
open himself to others, and to embrace who he really is. He hides behind a
façade of masculinity, and it eats away at his very soul. His cruel nature masks
what he really desires, and the possibility that it may never come to be. It’s
one thing to find companionship and lose it, it’s another thing to never have
had it to begin with. We discover that Phil Burbank isn’t running from his past,
but longs for the chance to go back to it. The Power of the Dog is cold, cruel,
and impossible to ignore. It is also one of the best films of the year.
Family Matters (***½)
You know the traditional Western must be dead or mortally wounded when the
year’s two most notable examples or variations of the genre: The Power of the
Dog and Cry Macho are
attacks on what I call hyper masculinity (exaggerated machismo) and they also
include no action or acts of heroism in them.
Of the two, The Power of the Dog is the more thoughtful and involving film
(although Cry Macho contains many small pleasures and good performances.) The
Power of the Dog also takes on the weighty theme of the cost of repressed
sexuality and homosexuality in particular in the old west. In this way it is
reminiscent of Brokeback Mountain.
With all the new knowledge we have gained about the old west and how Native
Americans were treated it may no longer possible to do a totally traditional
western like John Wayne and Randolph Scott used to do.
The Power off the Dog which is currently playing at the Music Box and just
started streaming on Netflix was directed by the skillful New Zealand film
maker, Jane Campion.
She was actually the first female to win an Oscar for her film, The Piano, and
although it was a fine film, I think I liked her superlative biopic An Angle at
My Table and her drama, Bright Star (2009) about the poet John Keats even more.
Holy Smoke! the S & M psychological film with Harvey Keitel and Kate Winslet
was also fascinating. Campion just won the New York Critic’s Circle Award for
best director for The Power of the Dog, and some see another Oscar soon in her
Despite the untraditional subject matter, Campion shoots many scenes through
windows and doorways which could be a homage to the old Western master, John
Ford, who often did this in his films.
The film stars one of modern cinema’s most dynamic actors, Benedict Cumberbatch.
Most people probably know him from Dr.Strange but many of his finest
performances were for British TV like the Hidden Crown, and he was also arguably
the best Sherlock Holmes. The one trait that he usually brings to many of his
roles is overwhelming intelligence and arrogance, at least up until this film.
There have been many stories in the media about how he used the method and was
curt and cruel with other actors to get into character even before filming, and
he “does a Brando” and completely immerses himself in the character. Of his
performance in the film Campion has said, “There’s no Benedict there.”
Cumberbatch is often impressive but his psychological transformation here
playing a character far different from the type he usually plays is
The film like the novel with the same name that inspired it takes place in
Montana cattle ranch in 1925. Some people (not me) might be angered that this
American set film was almost entirely shot in New Zealand (which is where the
director hails from). But it can be argued that the old America this film
depicts does not exist anywhere.
The Power of the Dog presents a complex four-sided toxic relationship between a
sadistic cowboy, Phil, (Cumberbatch’s character), his more affluent and
compassionate brother, George, ( Jesse Plemons), a broken widow, Rose (Kristen
Dunst), and her oversensitive Peter, son (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
The two brothers, Phil and George who act as opposites co-own a ranch. When
Cumberbatch’s character, Phil Burbank, finds out that his brother is going to
marry a local widow his face transforms to a mask of complete loathing. He
torments her until she is a full-blown alcoholic.
Phil mistreats his son’s adopted son who he sees as a sissy. Later on in a
surprising turn he takes him under his wing, and tries to toughen him up, but
no one would consider the man a good role model for the youth.
The waythat Phil lovingly rubs oil on a saddle (as if it is the thing that he
loves the most) that once belonged to a male mentor named Bronco Henry suggests
that he is a sexual volcano about to blow. The scene makes as big a statement
about displaced desire as a dozen old scenes of Dirty Harry holding a giant gun.
All of this seems to be building to some kind of drastic action. The title
refers to an obscure Biblical passage in Psalms that a character reads which may
push him into an unexpected path. The original passage reads: “Deliver my heart
from the sword, my precious life, from the power of the dog.” Viewers will have
to decide for themselves who the dog is, but the answer should be fairly
The understated spooky ending is one of the most memorable of the year and
highly disturbing. But without giving too much away it won’t make much sense to
viewers unless they carefully absorbed the earlier clues that make it possible.
To top it off Radiohead’s lead guitarist/keyboardist, Jonny Greenwood (using
brass, strings, woodwinds, and piano) has produced one of the most evocatively
eerie avant-garde soundtracks of the year which goes perfectly with the film.
While I don’t think this film is either Cumberbatch’s or Campion’s crowning
achievement (maybe it hurt that I saw it on the small screen), The Power of the
Dog is still much wiser and more seductively powerful than the vast majority of
films I have seen this year. Also, it has a good chance of getting multiple
Oscar nominations, especially for Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee.
Jane Campion. Based on Thomas Savage’s
of the same name
Benedict Cumberbatch, Kristen Dunst, Jesse
R for cattle castration, language, and violence
THE POWER OF THE DOG
© 2021 Netflix
Review © 2021 Alternate Reality, Inc.