Benedict Cumberbatch has crafted a niche for himself playing men who are both brilliant and boorish, men who put people off with their arrogance or disinterest in others. His character in The Power of the Dog fits right into this mold. The character also allows Cumberbatch many layers to explore, and his excellent performance is only the most conspicuous highlight of this film. And ultimately, that makes The Power of the Dog one of the best films of 2021.
The script, based on the Thomas Savage novel, follows the rancher brothers Phil (Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons). Gentle George meets widow and mom Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) when they stop at her restaurant and hotel while taking their cattle to market. George marries her, much to the dismay of his commanding and bad-tempered brother. Phil disdains and mocks Rose and her teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) at every turn, eventually driving her to drink.
That bare-bones recitation of the plot does not hint AT ALL at the complexity and cleverness of the story. Barely a moment goes by that doesn’t offer a rich subtext of interpersonal relationships and conflict to savor. The film qualifies as a Western due to its Montana setting but also due to its examination of masculinity. You can’t get more toxic than Phil Burbank in that regard. However, there is also a clear, fresh perspective to be had here because of the female writer-director.
Jane Campion has always been at ease in a period milieu, such as in The Piano and Bright Star. This film is set more recently, in 1925, but they all give the audience a sense of looking back as a way of seeing something about people more distinctly. Generous use of the female gaze is a pleasant touch here. (Male full-frontal nudity occurs, just so you’re aware.) The theme of toxic masculinity is the storytelling foundation, however. Campion has full command over both, giving equal weight to both the words AND the visuals.
The subtlety of all this is probably the best thing about the screenplay. Nothing is heavy-handed. Not Phil’s sexuality, not Rose’s alcoholism, nothing. Everything is deftly woven into a story that has a definite ending in view. This probably comes mostly from the novel source material but Campion makes it cinematic. She knows how to present all scenes and sequences so that the resolution is logical and impactful.
Cumberbatch as Phil will deservedly earn much awards conversation. His performance is a stunning one. He is not just an actor who convincingly creates a character, he disappears into his character. There are a couple of moments when expressions of vulnerability or unease pass over his face and they stick with the viewer. Dunst, Plemons, and Smit-McPhee are also superb. Not a weak link among them.
The camera loves these actors but there is even more than them to look at. Ari Wegner‘s cinematography soars from the start of this film and never lets up. New Zealand locations stand in for Montana. This might not actually be Big Sky Country but the vistas are gorgeous nonetheless. More than just the landscapes create the memorable imagery of life on the ranch, too. (If you’re squeamish at the sight of animal blood, be prepared.)
The storytelling and the look of The Power of the Dog make it one of the best films of 2021. The performances do as well, especially Cumberbatch’s. This film is not an easy viewing experience but it is a worthwhile one. Expect to hear the title of this film a lot as we enter film awards season.