Director: Jane Campion
Writer: Jane Campion
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie, Genevieve Lemon, Keith Carradine, and Frances Conroy
Based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, The Power of the Dog, is a slow-burn drama with a lot to unpack. It’s a mesmerising experience thanks to some powerful performances and a chilling score from Jonny Greenwood.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons star as two wealthy brothers who own a ranch together. They meet Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) at a nearby inn. George (Plemons) falls in love with Rose, and they end up marrying. Phil (Cumberbatch) is not as taken with Rose, and the feeling is mutual. With everyone under the same roof tensions start growing.
There is a lot to unpack with The Power of the Dog. It’s a family drama at it’s centre, with each segment of the film focused on a relationship between the different family members. Phil and George are brothers, but they see the world differently. George sees himself as more civilised, dressing up in fancier clothing, while Phil, the more educated of the two, is happy to get his hands dirty. There’s a tension that is constantly growing between them.
The film is set in 1925, with a real clash between two different ways of living. Phil may be more educated, with a university background, but he seeks a simple and traditional lifestyle, while George wants to live as part of the future, with cars and suits. There’s a real clash between the past and the future that the film is on the precipice of.
Phil see’s his brother’s wife as nothing but a gold digger, something he openly accuses her of. Their first meeting results in her crying, as Phil belittles her son, Peter. Their relationship never recovers. He mocks and makes digs towards her, driving her further and further into isolation and alcoholism as George spends more and more time away for work.
One of the most interesting relationships is the one between Phil and Peter. At first it feels like they’re completely at odds, with no hope of ever finding a common ground, but Phil takes him under his wing, teaches him to ride horses and to live in the wilderness. There’s an interesting dynamic and something that the film leaves open-ended in a way that will keep it in your mind for a long time afterwards.
The performances are all excellent. Cumberbatch is sinister and demeaning, and clashes with almost everyone around him. Kirsten Dunst is great as Rose, who is taken from her life into something she at first thinks is wonderful, before it turns sour. You really feel the journey she goes on. There’s a really nice scene where she tries to teach George to dance, before they reach the ranch house. It contrasts completely with the scene as she hides next to the house, drinking in secret, while Phil whistles the tune she’s been trying to play on the piano from the window, mocking her constantly. At both the highs and lows, Dunst is excellent and you really feel for her. The absolute star of the film is Kodi Smit-McPhee, who channels Norman Bates into his role as Peter. When you first meet him you feel like he’s a sweet and innocent boy, who wouldn’t survive in the old world that Phil still wants to be a part of. As his character develops, he becomes genuinely scary, sinister in a different way to Phil, but on an equal level.
The film is a real slow-burn story that gets under your skin and clings to you. It’s completely absorbing, and you’re taken into the world of the story. It does feel slightly too long, with it’s two plus house run time, but it’s not too noticeable. Jonny Greenwood’s score is phenomenal, adding an unsettling and disturbing atmosphere.
Jane Campion’s latest film is a spellbinding and mesmerising tale. Thanks to powerful performances, a really tight script, and so many things left unsaid for you to think about long after the credits role, The Power of the Dog is simply an excellent film.
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