Watching The Power of the Dog, the latest film from Oscar-winner Jane Campion, I was in complete awe of everything I was seeing. Campion, who hasn’t made a movie since 2009’s Bright Star, comes back from her twelve-year hiatus to make a detailed, layered, chilling western that is not only one of the best films of her career and one of the best films of 2021.
The Power of the Dog takes place in 1925 Montana and looks at charismatic rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), a man who inspires fear and awe in those around him. When his brother (Jesse Plemons) brings home a new wife (Kirsten Dunst) and her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Phil torments them until he finds himself exposed to the possibility of love.
I recently wrote a review for the latest Wes Anderson movie, The French Dispatch, and talked about how Wes Anderson movies only improve upon repeated viewings because Anderson movies are loaded with dialog, visuals, and quirks. Campion is another one of those filmmakers whose films only get better with each viewing, yet not for the same reasons as Anderson. Sure, Campion’s films are all gorgeous and interesting, The Power of the Dog being arguably her best looking, but Campion layers every scene with so much depth and detail, that wordless sequences speak volumes to what is going on on-screen and the subtext beneath what we are seeing. I have seen The Power of the Dog twice now and while I loved the film the first time I saw it, I was blown away by all the little nuances Campion layered in every frame. From the way a character fiddles with a flower or strokes a whip to small looks characters exchange with one another, Campion gives us important character and plot details with nothing more than a simple movement.
The Power of the Dog is a film that looks at toxic masculinity, secrets hidden within us, and looking beyond what is in front of us. Benedict Cumberbatch gives the best performance of his career as Phil in a terrifying, disturbing performance. Phil is reminiscent of a once-cool high school jock-bro who refuses to take his letterman jacket off a decade after he’s graduated. He doesn’t want things to change and continuously brings up the past, whether talking about his mentor, Bronco Henry, or the good times with his brother. The world around him might be changing, but Phil continues to stay the same. He leads his pack of workers, who look up to him like he is a God, and gets a rise at tormenting and making fun of people, particularly his new sister-in-law’s son.
But there is a facade to Phil that Campion slowly fleshes out. Little moments and sequences hint at Phil hiding something and it is slowly fleshed out when Phil takes a liking to his new nephew. Smit-McPhee gives a tremendous performance as someone who is perceived as soft to someone like Phil, but also has something hidden within him and uses his intelligence and patience to get back at Phil for tormenting him and his mother. It’s awards-caliber work from both Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee, yet their most powerful moments on screen require nothing more than a glance.
Though I always prefer watching a movie in theaters, The Power of the Dog being on Netflix is great because now I can go back and watch it whenever I want and dig into every layer of this movie. The Power of the Dog is an extraordinary feat from a true master. A movie that only gets better after multiple viewings and one you will constantly be thinking about after you see it.
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