REVIEW: The Power of the Dog (Venice 2021)
The Power of the Dog drags us into a bleak and twisted wild west, where thundering masculinity is scrutinised under a lens and left wanting. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons star as Phil and George Burbank – successful ranchers in the hills of Montana in 1925. But these are men out of time. The ranch, nestled in the foreboding hills, could very easily have been the same way for a hundred years or more. The same goes for the Burbank brothers – a testament to the old west, left hanging by the roaring twenties. These harsh and ruthless lands are a place where real men grow. Phil prides himself on his strength and resilience. But while he has stood unwavering in the face of wolves and other dangers, there’s one thing he was unprepared for – a woman. Until now, Phil and George have essentially been a cantankerous odd couple – sharing a bedroom as they farm cattle in these wild and dangerous Badlands. But when George takes a wife, Phil isn’t exactly pleased for his brother.
Rose Gordon, played by Kirsten Dunst, runs a local restaurant and boarding house. But despite her mild manner and friendly nature, Rose unwittingly gets under Phil’s skin. Even more so is Rose’s son, Peter, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee – an effeminate boy who makes paper flowers and has never tussled with the wild lands before. He’s everything that Phil isn’t – and “Little Lord Fauntleroy” as he calls him, only seems to incense him even more.
At this point, The Power of the Dog becomes a tussle between a group of people just trying to live their lives. Phil, the thuggish picture of masculinity, is enraged by his life being upset with the addition of new blood. But it’s more than that. Their very presence challenges the old ways he clings onto. And he simply can’t let it stand. The Power of the Dog is dripping in tension throughout – ramped up by the secluded nature of the ranch and the foreboding landscape around them. Indeed, Phil has a disconcerting habit of quietly studying the hills. Perhaps he’s waiting for a pack of wolves to attack the ranch. Who knows? But his pensive demeanour in the face of the unknown gives Phil a disturbing quality. And we begin to see a side to the Burbank brother that disturbs us even more.
Once Rose and her son are moved into the ranch, things really start to go to hell. Psychological mind games are Phil’s weapon of choice – interesting, considering his outwardly violent nature. But then, Phil is an enigma unto himself. He’s spent so long attempting to tame the wild frontier that he’s become twisted by it. From his brawny appearance through to his wild, outdoor bathing, you would think the wild man himself was born of the land. But we soon learn that this is all a means of coping – a character Phil has created for himself to bury things, to cope. And with a Yale education, he has far more in common with “Little Lord Fauntleroy” than he would care to admit.
And so, the mind games continue with Phil doing everything he can to unsettle the boy and his mother. And unsettle them he does. The taunting whistles of a familiar tune carry an eerie weight throughout the ranch. Phil is a constant – always there, in the shadows. Much like the desolate hills around them, there is no escape.
The Power of the Dog is based on the novel by Thomas Savage. Directed by Jane Campion, it’s her first film since Bright Star in 2009. And what a return. The thick, heavy atmosphere is made even more dense with Cumberbatch’s stellar performance. Sure, he may chew the scenery with the occasional clichéd cowboyism, but this is all part of Phil’s act – the character he has created for himself. Dunst is also on great form as the beleaguered Rose, with a torn and broken look that only seems to feed Phil’s desire to destroy her.
All in all, The Power of the Dog is a deft scrutiny of the masculinity of the old west. It’s only as we look closer that it truly starts to crumble. But it’s not just Phil who suffers – the family around him are bent and broken. As the psychological warfare rumbles on, we know it’s only a matter of time until it all comes to a head. And it’s certainly not going to end well.
The Power of the Dog will be coming to Netflix on 1 December, 2021.
For an interview with Ari Wegner (cinematographer of The Power of the Dog) about an Australian Western – True History of the Kelly Gang – click here.