Monday, November 15, 2021

The Power of the Dog - Review

Since 1993, when Jane Campion became just the second woman every nominated for Best Director at the Academy Awards, the director has made very few films in comparison to her male counterparts. After viewing her filmmaking style, it’s really no surprise that Campion prefers to take her time. And while the films in the last 28 years are few and far between, this outing was well worth the wait. 

A domineering rancher (Benedict Cumberbatch) responds with mocking cruelty when his brother (Jesse Plemons) brings home a new wife (Kirsten Dunst) and her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), until the unexpected comes to pass.

Set in 1925 Montana, The Power of the Dog contains all the raw emotion amidst the unforgiving landscape you’d expect. Campion’s film takes a look at and then subsequently deconstructs masculinity and the painful yearning that can make humans cruel. There’s a constant raising of the axe, just building, waiting to fall, and it never does. The tension of this remote setting and its characters continues to build and build until it almost bursts, making even the smallest moment, infinitely more sinister. 

The bulk of that cruelty falls on the shoulders of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Phil, a weathered rancher that showboats around the property, looming over all the tedious tasks and events that unfold. Cumberbatch is mesmerizing, equal parts entertaining and terrifying, finding new ways to be intimidating at each turn. He is well suited for this part, as Phil himself is somewhat of a performer, and Cumberbatch’s knack for large performances fits in perfectly. 

Other performances get sucked into the gravitational pull of Cumberbatch’s performance, making them harder to gauge. Kirsten Dunst is undoubtedly great as Rose, a reserved woman who handles her misfortune by searching for the bottom of a bottle. Dunst portrays her with a sinking, heartbreaking sadness that lingers in the air and over the entire film. Smit-McPhee, as Peter, the son of Rose, possesses the vulnerability that’s crucial to making the film’s later events possible. And finally, Plemons serves as the counter to Cumberbatch, a soft-spoken, understated performance that essentially functions as the glue for these larger characters and performances. 

All of this just gets added to a film that’s absolutely gorgeous on a technical level. The cinematography from Ari Wegner perfectly captures the remote and dirty landscapes and the picturesque skies that stretch for miles. All of the production design choices are stellar, particularly in the overly manly mansion with its single, pristine baby grand piano in the middle of it. And Johnny Greenwood’s score, full of slow and unsettling keys only serves to add to the tension and claustrophobia. 

Jane Campion is a force to be reckoned with this year. It’s a film that’s so captivating in its narrative and visual brilliance that it’s hard to imagine Campion and the film itself catching fire amongst various awards bodies as the year winds to a close. Elevated by an extraordinary ensemble and a brilliant screenplay, The Power of the Dog is as challenging, mesmerizing and generally perfect as they come. 

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