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.