"The Power of the Dog" is a slow-burn balancing act, that admittedly, felt like a lot to chew on upon first viewing. But wow does its flavor linger.
A beautifully composed, intimate story of a man, a boy and a couple in the open ranges of Montana set the mid 1920s, "The Power of the Dog" is one of the most stellar achievements in story-telling you'll ever witness, a film that is challenging and compelling all the same, that wraps itself around the viewers, twisting our perceptions, and almost assuredly forces deep, intellectual post-viewing discussions.
Based on the 1967 novel of the same name by Thomas Savage, it tells the story of the Burbank brothers: Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) a tough, filthy, nasty, overpowering man and George (Jesse Plemons) his softer, gentler and more timid younger brother. They're ranch owners who pass through town on a cattle drive, where they meet an inn-keeper, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and her college-aged son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who is studying medicine in hopes of becoming a surgeon.
Phil is a tornado, spitting bile and contempt wherever he goes. He's constantly belittling George, who seems to absorb Phil's aggression like a lightning rod. Phil verbally abuses Peter when he first meets him, poking fun at Peter's lisp and his affinity for creating flowers out of newspaper. All the while Phil references his late mentor and idol constantly, a fellow named "Bronco" Henry, whom Phil regards as the greatest cowboy and man to have ever lived.
Trust me, you won't see where this film is going. It unfolds slowly and methodically - too slowly and methodically, perhaps, for some. Shot entirely on location in New Zealand (doubling for Montana), it's a breath-taking movie full of beauty and elegance. That glory is juxtaposed by the hardened masculinity of Phil Burbank and the ugliness he projects into the world. He is a man who literally and figuratively speaking, refuses to come clean.
What a year for Benedict Cumberbatch. The "Cumber-ssaince" is upon us most definitely. In the fantastic and terribly overlooked "The Courier" earlier this year, I wrote that the actor "is perhaps better than he's ever been," which was true...at that time. Then he showed brilliant new colors with his performance as the cat artist Louis Wain in Amazon's "The Electrical Life of Louis Wain." But his performance as Phil Burbank is career-defining. He approached the role in "method," meaning that he was Phil on-and-off camera around the set, never breaking character. That isolation pays off in his abrasive scenes with the likes of Plemons and Dunst, but also in his longing, in scenes where his character shares more private moments. Let's not forget that Cumberbatch's year isn't yet over...he reprises his role as Dr. Strange in the upcoming "Spider-Man: No Way Home" Marvel/Sony film.
What Campion does is nothing short of astounding. Everything is there, neatly wrapped into complex but carefully-handled moments. The characters don't have traditional arcs, rather its the viewer who morphs, learns, grows and changes over the course of the film. A second-viewing is almost required to fully appreciate everything that Campion is offering. But even if you don't pick up on the film's subtleties (there is no spoon-feeding here), you won't be able to look away from the sheer palpable energy radiating from the screen at all times.
If you're curious as to the film's title, it's taken from a Bible passage (Psalm 22), which reads: "Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog."
This film is no dog, that's for sure. It's among the year's best films, even if it's a tough chew.
Genre: Western, Drama, Romance.
Run Time: 2 hours 6 minutes.
Based on the novel by Thomas Savage.
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee.
Adapted for the screen and Directed by Jane Campion ("The Piano," "Bright Star," "In the Cut," "The Portrait of a Lady").
"The Power of the Dog" is streaming on Netflix on Wednesday, December 1st, 2021.
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