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Campion: The Power of the Dog (2021)
Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog (2021) | courtesy of Venice International Film Festival

Venice 2021: ‘The Power of the Dog’ Locks Its Jaws on You

Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance is spellbinding and disturbing in Jane Campion’s taut exploration of identity and family relationships, The Power of the Dog.

The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion
Netflix
September 2021 (Venice International Film Festival)

It’s been 12 years since Jane Campion made a feature film (the well-regarded John Keats biopic, 2009’s Bright Star), but one could never guess, if we’re to judge by her enthusiasm at a press conference this year’s Venice International Film Festival ( on 2 September. “I think once you give women a chance, there’s not going to be much stopping them. I know the statistics still aren’t in women’s favour. It’s a great loss for everyone that there aren’t feminine voices describing our world and who we are. We come to believe we are a patriarchy when that isn’t the case,” comments Campion on female representation in the industry and the fact that this year, of the 78 films premiering at the Lido, only five were directed by women (down from eight last year). 

Correspondingly, Campion is also referring to one of the main characters, Rose, in the world premiere of her new film, The Power of the Dog. Rose is superbly brought to a miserable on-screen life by Kirsten Dunst. A “widow by suicide” and mother of a “half-cooked son”, she marries into the Burbank family and comes with her adolescent boy to live on a prosperous Montana ranch. This is when the misery starts, or at least escalates, before a spectacular resolution.

Her unraveling in this utterly morbid and fascinatingly sadistic film might be but a part of a much greater story in Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, set in 1925, from which Campion’s film is based. Both the book and the film provide astute observations on how the patriarchy hurts women (and men) on all fronts.

Savage’s novel, is among the most underappreciated mid-century portraits of the American West. A “western” on paper only, it is a stupefyingly somber and subversive exploration of the inner lives of men in 1920s Montana, where Savage grew up. But the parallels with his own life do not end there. Those familiar with Savage’s life will already know the crux of one of the film’s two major plot twists, but since the writer, unfortunately, never knew mainstream fame in his 88 years, it would be best to advise the viewers not to inform themselves further on these topics if they are to fully enjoy the deliberately slow pacing of the film.

Know this, however: rarely has such a stunning aesthetic alignment between the source writer and a screen director been seen. Savage’s novel, which Campion adapted almost too loyally, moves at a glacial pace, slowly drawing us into the world of Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his brother George (Jesse Plemmons), two very different men, but loving brothers and ranch owners, who sleep in the same room even as adults.

Phil, the dominant brother, is malevolent and barbarous, but also hypnotizingly intelligent and capably macho. George, kind and caring, is withdrawn and quiet. The two men complement each other to the best of their very limited emotional ability until George decides to marry Rose, a local widow and the mother of a teenage son Peter, whom Phil seems to despise for his effeminate qualities. As soon as Rose and Peter move to the ranch, Phil sets out to destroy their lives in (relatively) subtle, but gruesome ways. 

In his novel, Savage takes almost too much time to immerse the reader in the endless, hostile landscapes of early 20th century Montana and especially Phil’s tormented, but utterly unsympathetic mind, and Campion follows suit to the beat. Funded by Netflix (which she compared to the Medicis during the press conference), she filmed in her native New Zealand, whose expansive tussocks–while being a solid stand-in for the plains of Montana–echo the same hostility and detachment seen in her 1993 masterpiece, The Piano.

Long, steady, drawn-out shots of indifferent nature and the tiny men traversing it are as important to the narrative as are bold, lingering closeups of Cumberbatch’s spastic face while his character contemplates harm. By the time we reach a crucial conversation between Phil and Peter, which revolves around what Phil sees in the seemingly barren hills opposite the ranch – which nobody else sees – it is clear that this nature, and the ways it influences communities, is as relevant to the story the characters. 

Speaking of characters and actors, everyone delivers against the gruelingly challenging task of focusing on demanding kinetics over dialogue; Campion is known for conveying her characters’ dispositions through gestures more than words. Plemmons – who gained some 40 pounds for the role of George – effortlessly navigates the thankless task of playing a slow and reticent man who must cope with casual outbursts from his bombastic brother routinely refers to him as “fatso”. Frankly, George is the least interesting of the four major characters, but Plemmons works well with what he’s given, ensuring that George is more than just a mere cipher. His character is an amiable man who marries simply for the joy of “being with someone else”.

Moreover, Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee are both superb, their roles generating immediate awards buzz in the crowded, albeit physically-distanced Biennale. As Rose, Dunst comes undone and becomes unhinged in ways very difficult to portray without overacting. She is a profoundly sad and downtrodden working woman who endures everyday abuse from the disrespectful customers of her small-town restaurant. She ends up married to a man she appreciates but does not love and fears for the life of her precocious son who does not fit into the standards of early 20th-century masculinity.

The scenes in which we gain insight into her little world and its limits are among the most harrowing; on one occasion she marvels at her son for having the opportunity to go to college; in another, she quietly explains to a fascinated George that what he perceives to be her excellent piano skills are just a few basic tunes she used to play on repeat during film screenings. The way Dunst’s character suffers and spirals from depression into violent paranoia is performed marvelously but without pomp. It will resonate with countless women and especially single mothers. Nevertheless, it is Rose’s tense animosity toward Phil that brings about the greatest suspense and rewards, but more on that later. 

Kodi Smit-McPhee, who’s been preparing for the big leagues since he got his acting break at the age of 13 in John Hillcoat’s 2009 film, The Road, carries a lot on his shoulders (including both major plot twists) as Peter in The Power of the Dog. Here, his character is taciturn and contemplative teenager whose inquisitive mind and lanky features–not to mention a talent for making bouquets out of (crepe) paper–make him an all-too-easy target for the overly aggressive, almost comically masculine men of the rural US.

Phil, of course, despises Peter, and early in the film humiliates him in front of his ranch crew. Phil’s on-the-nose toxic masculinity stands in perfect opposition with Peter’s delicate detachment from the world of men. However, as the film progresses, it becomes evident that the two men have more in common than it seems at first.

Smit-McPhee, whose role, like Dunst’s, threatens to slide into parody, instead delivers professional restraint with the maturity of a much older and experienced actor. Indeed, he shines the most in scenes where he is pitted against the most formidable of sparring partners – a career-best Cumberbatch. 

To elaborate on what the notoriously likeable Brit did with his first role as a proper sociopath with a fondness for complete control (that would be Sherlock Holmes, of course) would be to take the magic out of what Cumberbatch achieves with the few words that Phil utters in this film. The Power of the Dog is undisputedly Phil’s story, focusing dominantly on the workings of his psyche and the reasons behind his intellectual and spiritual decline; all the other characters are there to primarily tell us more about Phil and what makes him the way he is. Cumberbatch, one of the best actors alive, outdoes himself here, combining ticks, tsks, and whistles with his barking mad physicality to an impressive effect that leaves viewers speechless. (For those with crushes on Cumberbatch, there are no less than three scenes in which he shows off his finely sculpted body, either partially or in its entirety. Impressive hamstrings, by the way.)

Campion is well aware of her protagonist’s competencies and insists on painful, lingering closeups during which Phil often barely moves; the camera’s intimate eye is reserved for Cumberbatch, whose minutest movements come alive with anguish and anger as the tension pressing upon the others intensifies. Johnny Greenwood’s sparse but tense soundtrack complements the film’s unbearably paranoid atmosphere perfectly. 

As said, to discuss the film’s twists and turns, or even Campion’s secondary aesthetic choices, would be to betray the horrifyingly intense experience future viewers will undoubtedly have when they watch The Power of the Dog. You may presume there is plenty of destruction and mutilation of all sorts coming up from the trailer alone, but the ways in which Campion approaches the topics of violence–emotional, physical, and societal–must be experienced.

Unfortunately, it has to be said that the film is not without flaws, and, funnily enough, they’re exactly the same flaws of Savage’s novel. Even though this is a film about one man and his inner and outer conflicts with himself and the society, we learn little about Phil’s life, though a lot is hinted at, with some motifs carrying the whole story. By the end, the viewer expects to understand what motivates Phil, but this does not happen, and crucial information on his background and the choices he makes is left out. Thus, it might be hard to imagine this brutal and despicable man as little more than a poster boy for a Me Too complaint. With the effort Savage, Cumberbatch, and Campion put into bringing Phil to life so vividly, the character deserves a more thorough treatment. 

The other issue is the final, massive twist, which comes about too silently, too quickly, and too late, leaving the viewers with no time to process, or even understand (or even notice!) what they saw. No spoilers will be provided here, but at least a few more minutes and scenes detailing what happened and how could have made a much stronger impact on viewers. At this screening, it seemed many viewers left the film startled and struggling to absorb the final two–and most important–scenes.

Nevertheless, The Power of the Dog is an excellent film that you must see. Campion and her crew deliver a shockingly morbid story. It’s also an understandable and relatable portrait of a family in disarray and a society that’s more hostile than the plains full of beasts that roam amongst them.

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