By Saxon Whitehead
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When it was announced that The Power of the Dog received 12 Oscar nominations, making it the most nominated film for this year’s Academy Awards, I wasn’t surprised. Very few films grabbed me the way that this film did, and it has had a hold on me ever since. It’s a film that has haunted me in the best possible way and is one of my favorites of 2021. It has become the front-runner in many of the categories it has been nominated for, including Best Picture. Some people take issue with this and feel that it is undeserving of this, but if you ask me, it would be a great winner. At the very least, it would be a more interesting winner than a great deal of the other films in the Best Picture line-up this year. It has a great blend of style and substance, and just might be director Jane Campion’s best film since her 1993 breakthrough The Piano. I would even go as far as to say that The Power of the Dog might be her magnum opus, as every aspect of the film seems to be firing on all cylinders.
It may have been 12 years since Jane Campion’s last film was released, but with The Power of the Dog, she wastes no time reminding us why she is one of our finest filmmakers working today. Campion once again delivers an intriguing tale that explores power dynamics and sexuality, but she does so while also reckoning with masculinity and the different forms that it can take. The fact that the film is set in the 1920s, where the first cracks were appearing in the facade of what a modern man “should be”, makes it all the more impactful, as we see such a stark contrast between the more macho persona of Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the more effeminate Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). In the middle of this, we see how Burbank’s hellbent desire to preserve the ideals of the life he has built for himself causes trouble for his brother George (Jesse Plemons) and his new wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst). The fact that Rose is also Peter’s mother exacerbates this, as Phil practically terrorizes her all throughout the film. A scene where she is practicing the piano, but is repeatedly interrupted by Phil playing the banjo. It’s one of the most menacing scenes of 2021, and a great encapsulation of one of the film’s core conflicts. The idea of Phil’s masculinity being threatened is further illustrated with his burgeoning relationship with Peter, Rose’s son. Their dynamic is the focal point of the film, and part of why it is so compelling.
Some might argue that Benedict Cumberbatch has no business playing a brutish, unrefined, menacing role like Phil Burbank, but he manages to be a perfect fit. The Power of the Dog largely deals with the idea of what masculinity is, and how some men view it. Cumberbatch embodies the machismo that was commonplace among cowboys in the early 20th century so fully, but it’s the layers of the character that make this more than Cumberbatch simply playing against type. So much of the character revolves around his reverence for his mentor, Bronco Henry. He taught him everything, and it’s through this element that we begin to see that there’s more to Phil than what we see on the surface. There is a complexity that Cumberbatch brings to the role, and allows the audience to question how much of his bombastic personality is just a front because he is insecure about certain parts of himself. Through this lens, Cumberbatch’s performance is about the performance itself, Specifically, it takes on the facade that many men build for themselves in order to not be seen as anything but masculine. Without spoiling anything, there is a scene where Cumberbatch is alone in the woods and bathes in a river that hints at an inner conflict between how he presents himself to the people around him, and who he really is. This scene features Cumberbatch at his most vulnerable, and acts as a turning point for the film. This is where the film dives even deeper into its potent themes, and what leads me to consider this to be Cumberbatch’s best performance to date.
The other side of the coin in regards to the film’s take on masculinity lies in Peter, who Kodi Smit-McPhee plays with such control. In comparison to Cumberbatch’s performance, Smit-McPhee is more subdued, but that doesn’t make his performance any less impactful. He captures the quiet, calculating nature of Peter so effortlessly, which complements Cumberbatch’s more charismatic portrayal of Phil perfectly. The almost polar opposite ways they carry themselves represent two different presentations of masculinity. Cumberbatch’s Phil is clearly the more stereotypically manly of the two, whereas Smit-McPhee’s Peter feels like his polar opposite. When we first meet Peter in the film, he is helping his mother, Rose, at the inn that she owns. Phil stays at the inn while on a cattle drive with his brother George, and he makes fun of Peter for his lisp and more effeminate mannerisms. We next see him when he comes to stay at Phil and George’s ranch while on summer break from school. Peter’s presence on the ranch only makes Phil angrier, and he is further mocked as a result. As the film progresses, Phil warms up to Peter and tries to teach him how to be a cowboy. Smit-McPhee plays off of Cumberbatch so well in these scenes, and it’s where we get some of his best moments. It’s a rather subtle performance, and it’s the little choices he makes that makes his work stand out. A particular scene near the end of the film where Phil and Peter are working on making a rope and sharing a cigarette is a particularly great example of this, and what Smit-McPhee is able to accomplish primarily with glances and very little dialogue is one of the most memorable things about the film to me. Not to mention his quieter work in the film’s ending, which ties the film up in a rather poignant way.
While Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee’s performances are the ones that are more likely to stand out, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention what Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons bring to the table here. Dunst gets a lot to work with as her character, Rose, receives the brunt of Phil’s terror. The merciless humiliation and taunting from him leads her to become an alcoholic, which informs much of her character’s actions for the rest of the film. Playing an alcoholic can be a tricky feat, as some actors tend to go over the top with certain mannerisms. But Dunst is able to go big enough to make an impact, but reins in her character’s drunkenness to where she doesn’t feel like a caricature. It’s honestly some of the better-drunk acting I’ve seen in a while, and she definitely deserves some credit for that. Plemons’s performance is more likely to go under the radar for some viewers, but he has some good moments throughout the film. His character, George, almost represents a middle ground between Phil and Peter, as he is not overly masculine, but it still feels like he’s putting up a bit of a front to appease Phil. In some ways, George is a bit of a thankless character, but Plemons is such a gifted actor that he is able to bring a bit of pathos to the role. As a result, you can’t help but feel sorry for him for having to put up with Phil. It’s clear that he is wanting to have a life of his own, and while it is clear that he loves his brother, he also sees him as a bit of a hindrance to his happiness. He also seems a bit threatened by him, which leads to a strange dynamic between the two. Since Phil is constantly antagonizing his new wife and stepson, this causes bigger issues between the two brothers, as George feels more inclined to defend his new family. Unsurprisingly, the scenes between him and Dunst are some of the most romantic in the film, since the two are partners in real life. Their scenes add a bit of sweetness amidst the film’s uneasy atmosphere and weaves into the Cumberbatch/McPhee plotline fairly well.
The cherry on top of the rich themes, stellar performances, and masterful direction would be Ari Wegner’s gorgeous cinematography and Jonny Greenwood’s haunting score. Wegner captures both the vast landscapes of New Zealand (which serves as a stand-in for the film’s Montana setting) and the more intimate scenes between the characters beautifully. But her camerawork isn’t just pretty to look at, it also fits in perfectly with the themes the film is reckoning with. It serves as the beauty underneath the film’s grimy veneer, which calls back to the characterization of Phil Burbank. Wegner also uses angles in order to show the power dynamics on the ranch. For many of Phil’s scenes, a low-angle shot is used, which gives the impression we are looking up at him. When we see some of the other characters, a high-angle shot is used, and we are looking down at them, even if it is just slightly. The angles shift all throughout the film and perfectly captures the shifts in power from scene to scene. This is also used to create a tense atmosphere for the film, and the blend of beauty and more unsettling elements gives the visual palette of the film a sense of specificity that is captured expertly by Wegner. As for Greenwood’s score, it feels more conventional near the beginning, but as the film goes on, it becomes more and more dissonant and idiosyncratic. It complements the shifting power dynamics, as well as the inner turmoil of its characters excellently, and is easily one of the best scores of the year.
I can easily see why some people may not like this film, as Campion’s work, in general, isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea. The film is a bit of a slow-burn, which some viewers may find boring, but for me, this allows everything to come together more methodically. Some people might be put off by Phil’s cruelty, but to me, it is so integral to what the film is trying to say about masculinity and the fronts that people put up in life. As with any film, there’s going to be people that don’t like it, but I have a hard time seeing how anyone could pick one of the more “safer” films nominated over this to win Best Picture. It is rare that I feel that the front-runner for Best Picture should win, and it’s even more rare that I am excited that the chances for another film to beat it out are slim. There are a couple of other films in the line-up that I could make a convincing case for why they deserve to win Best Picture, but there’s something about The Power of the Dog that speaks to me, and that I find especially engrossing. Time will tell if it ends up winning any of the Oscars it is nominated for, but based on the sheer talent and craft on display here, I would be overjoyed if it ends up being the night’s biggest winner.