Movie Review: The Power of the Dog

In recent years, there has been a reckoning with some of the more harmful ideas around what exactly it means to be a “man” in the world. Most notably perhaps the notions that men shouldn’t express their feelings, whether through openly crying or even discussing them with their loved ones, and that asserting oneself through violence is encouraged. It isn’t to suggest that guys shouldn’t like sports, trucks, or getting dirty, but that maybe they should try to be more okay with the idea that some guys don’t. In Oscar winner Jane Campion’s latest, she takes the topic head on.

Brothers Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons) are wealthy ranch owners in 1925 Montana. During a cattle drive they stop in a small outpost and meet widowed inn owner Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) and her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). As he waits on the brothers and the rest of their party during dinner service, Phil mocks him for his slight and effeminate nature. George has grown weary of his brother’s behavior, and remains behind to apologize, becoming smitten by Rose. The two are soon wed and the Gordons move into the Burbank brothers’ large ranch estate.

George is contemptuous of Rose and goes out of his way to make her life miserable, driving her to develop an alcohol problem. In the Summer though, when Peter returns from school, George begins to take an interest in the boy, and starts spending time with him to teach him some of the ways of life on a ranch. Knowing how malicious he can be, Rose is increasingly paranoid about the two being alone together, but Peter seems to be enjoying himself, and follows George wherever he can.

This is a deliberately paced movie, that is all too happy to linger on a striking Montana vista (and they are REALLY striking), or to dwell on a character’s quirks. There is a tension running throughout however, as almost from the get-go one can sense that this is all going to end badly for someone. Benedict Cumberbatch delivers a pitch-perfect performance, ably portraying the internal torment of a character who suppresses his true self by acting cruelly to others; especially others who seem like they might have a chance at happiness. As his chief victim, Kirsten Dunst’s gradual descent into near madness is flawless, and Kodi Smit-McPhee is excellent as her shy, awkward, effete, loyal, and intelligent son.

Despite the slowness, the movie never feels boring, especially as the psychosexual energy builds towards its climax. These characters are all trapped in one way or another, forced to behave in certain ways, or hide parts of themselves because of their gender. When someone finally takes action to break the cycle it’s thrilling, if not a little bittersweet; some people will never get to experience real love because of the prison they’ve built for themselves, though of course nothing is ever truly built alone. This is a slow-burn masterwork that will leave viewers with a lot to ponder. ★★★★★

Available on Netflix.

Rated R for brief sexual content / full nudity. Also contains language and violence.

★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor

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