The power of the dog

In Jane Campion’s new film The Power of the Dog, being a man means many things. It’s the dirt under your nails after a hard day on the cattle trail; the emotions you hold back to assert your dominance over your peers; the self-control required to wield a knife. In the West, you need to be a man — but the kind of man you need to be is rarely the kind of man anyone chooses to be. 

Gruff cowboy Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is caught in the chokehold of toxic masculinity as he watches over a cattle ranch with his kinder brother George (Jesse Plemons). Phil is prickly with George and firm with his employees, but he’s also a downright terror to George’s new wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst), whom the brothers met when their gaggle of ranch hands passed through her restaurant. 

Phil thinks Rose is up to no good because he doesn’t know how else to think. His guard is always raised, his humanity fading like an old coat of paint. But it’s Rose’s reserved, gentle son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who might be Phil’s biggest match yet. Phil slowly begins to see a bit of himself in Peter, and the audience gets a closer look at Phil’s past — he’s hiding pain that, if discovered, might get him ostracized in his world of macho cowpokes. 

This is just Campion’s third film as director in the past two decades, and here she makes it count — The Power of the Dog is head-and-shoulders above most 2021 movies. It’s a study of masculinity in the Old West, and Cumberbatch is a commanding lead, able to subtly portray a character who hides his true self beneath the veneer of a soulless, dirty cowboy prick. He’s a sensation, and so much is conveyed just in his presence — in cutting and foreboding glances. His long, sorrowful gaze into the beautiful Montana mountains says more than Campion’s dialogue ever could. Watching Phil soften as he finds worth in Peter’s company will break your heart. Phil also enters a delicate tug-of-war with Rose (Dunst is excellent here as well) as she sees her son being dragged into Phil’s world and endures her brother-in-law’s subtle, exhausting jabs.

In the end, Campion (who won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for 1993’s The Piano) stays true to Thomas Savage’s novel, which finds the balance between Phil’s version of manliness and Peter’s. Virtuoso composer and Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s antagonistic score keeps the film’s tone uneasy, and The Power of the Dog never lets you get too comfortable. While guys like Phil may view masculinity as a tool with which to maintain power and suppress emotion, guys like Peter prove that it can be used to achieve something else — justice. 

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