It took 11 years before Jane Campion made another feature-length film, but The Power of the Dog proved to be worth the wait.
In 1925 Montana, a pair of wealthy ranch-owning brothers dine in an inn owned by a widower named Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst). Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), the volatile brother, mocks her son’s lisp and effeminate ways. George (Jesse Plemons), the kind-hearted one, stays behind after dinner and comforts a crying widow. He immediately falls in love and eventually marries Rose despite his brother’s objections. Phil believes that she’s only after his brother’s money. Rose and her son Peter (Kodi Smith-McPhee) eventually move into the ranch and get tormented by Phil.
This story unravels like a puzzle box. The Power of the Dog looks like a Western but it’s actually a character-driven thriller. At first glance, the story is too simple for its backdrop, but its measured storytelling is rewarding for audiences with a long attention span. Intriguing character dynamics deliver clues along the way, while an engaging plot that operates in the realm of the suggestion keeps you invested.
Phil asserts his dominance over every person he meets but he isn’t a simple asshole. He’s a skilled rancher, banjo player, and probably the most badass motherfucker his men have ever seen. Next to him, George might as well be invisible.
But it’s also true that no man can be that hypermasculine without compensating for something. Phil is a tad too obsessed with his mentor Bronco Henry and has a secret man cave away from the eyes of his homophobic cattle bros.
Still, Rose is no match for his insidious taunting. In one instance, Phil belittles her piano skills by playing an improvised tune, breaks her confidence before she can perform, and belittles her again knowing full well she failed to impress his parents at a dinner party.
This may not seem much, but when you’re a widower of an alcoholic and the mother of a misfit isolated in a ranch with a cruel man who feels the need to constantly reassert the Western frontier ideal of toughness and manhood, you’d turn to the bottle too.
The unsettling atmosphere is complemented with period-inspired cinematography, set design, and musical score. These, in turn, are bolstered by great performances led by Benedict Cumberbatch. Just like the story, the characters grow richer in every turn.
Phil and Peter are the antithesis of each other, but not entirely. Phil takes interest in what he assumes to be a weak pawn, but later on, falls into a trap no thanks to his ego and repressed desire. Peter slyly takes advantage of his weakness.
In a tense brilliantly acted scene, you find out that an ornery man just really needs someone to love but he’s helpless against the ideals of a traditional world. Everything that he amounts to is an image, and someone’s image doesn’t always reflect what’s underneath.
The Power of the Dog is a haunting masterpiece about toxic masculinity and the damage it inflicts on a person and the people around them. Peter may have broken this cycle, but his cold logic suggests that he may just be a different version.
The Power of the Dog
The Power of the Dog is a beguiling and brilliantly acted thriller that dissects the toxic masculinity of the Western frontier.