The Power of the Dog, 2021.
Written and Directed by Jane Campion.
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, Thomasin McKenzie, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Frances Conroy, Keith Carradine, Peter Carroll, Adam Beach, and Sean Keenan.
Charismatic rancher Phil Burbank inspires fear and awe in those around him. When his brother brings home a new wife and her son, Phil torments them until he finds himself exposed to the possibility of love.
Rarely does a film sink its teeth in like The Power of the Dog, and from literally the opening seconds, no less. A foreboding line of voice narration questioning “what kind of man would I be if I didn’t help my mother” hangs heavy over writer/director Jane Campion’s (based on the novel by Thomas Savage) deeply complex character study. At the same time, Jonny Greenwood’s pulse-pounding score works in tandem with Ari Wegner’s lush framing of the 1925 American frontier (Montana, although technically shot in New Zealand), instantly absorbing and never letting up until the closing shot. And even then, it’s not over considering, while the film is a staggeringly penetrating work of art the first go around, contemplation and re-watches are sure to yield more subtle revelations regarding these methodically written characters.
Said opening sequence follows two brother cattle ranchers, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons), along with their crew handling some business before retiring for the night at a nearby inn run by widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst) with help from her socially awkward, lanky, and non-masculine son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). All four performances are incredible for distinct reasons, but Benedict Cumberbatch has a taller challenge that he crushes.
Phil is a borderline psychopathic rancher respected through a blending of charisma and dominance with an unabashed affection for his dying lifestyle (which could explain some of his hostility and cold-blooded callousness), usually telling stories of the glory days between him and his idol/best friend Bronco Henry. He also sees fit to hurl obscenities at Peter for having unique hobbies such as making paper flowers to set on each table. George is the opposite, but we also get a sense that he is tired of Phil and his menacing attitude. Whatever the case may be, he comforts Rose, routinely comes back to visit her, soon getting married.
The Power of the Dog so vividly re-creates a place in time with every single shot providing something noteworthy to marvel at, whether it be something discernible about the characters themselves, the vast landscapes, or something as simple yet impressionable as the burning of a cigarette. There are also those damn spurs pounding the floorboards as if Phil is the bogeyman. They are sure to haunt forever, just like the profundity of The Power of the Dog. Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst deliver the performances of their careers, and in a righteous world, Jane Campion will start a streak for female filmmakers winning the Best Director Oscar.
The Power of the Dog will have its Chicago premiere at the historic Music Box. Purchase your tickets here; don’t miss out on this lyrically moving masterpiece, far and away one of the absolute best movies of the year.
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com