The Power of the Dog review: Benedict Cumberbatch's a marvelous old, lonely ranch man

WION Web Team
New DelhiWritten By: Pallabi Dey PurkayasthaUpdated: Dec 02, 2021, 09:50 PM IST


Story highlights

Dark, desolate, disturbing and omnious are some of the apt adjectives for delineating Jane Campion's comeback film and she unleashes ruthlessness of the central figure through an actor we did not know could do mean so exquisitely: Benedict 'marvellous' Cumberbatch!

Clinking of silverware in an expansive ranch, thudding of cowboy boots and an overbearing presence of a hyper-macho Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) casts a foreboding shadow on the Burbank household. The setting is 1925 and the mood, perpetually, of forbidden desires and suppressed emotions. In Phil's complex world, a man exhibiting even a shred of vulnerability gets labelled as 'half-cooked Miss Nancy'. Perhaps, this is why his brother George (Jesse Plemons) despises his tough, foul mouthed elder brother so much so that he doesn't pass up on the chance to marry the 'cheap schemer' widow, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), Phil ungracefully loathes. 

Benedict Cumberbatch is a menacing presence in 'The Power of the Dog'
For the world outside, Phil embodies 1920s machismo typical of the Western stretch during that era: where pianists tremble with fear upon his single glare, maids hurdle up in one corner on his arrival and nobody, not even the 'fatso' younger brother he seems to love, challenges his rugged and hillbilly habits. 

Through mere body language, Jane Campion (director) makes the demarcation clear to her viewers: Phil is the epitome of masculinity and George, a prop for Phil to impose his twisted ideologies on. The ones that were introduced to him at a tender age by 'friend and greatest cowboy of all time', Bronco Henry: a character we never meet in person but know of his grip over the brothers--for various reasons--only through dialogues. 

Jane Campion's slowburner is a house of secrets, with heightened drama rendered by a stupendous Jonny Greenwood's background score.

However, Phil's authority is questioned by a lanky, sensitive sissy Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee, Rose's son) who is everything he is not: kind, artistic and a visionary of sorts. 

A revelation: Kodi Smit-McPhee as kind and sensitive Peter
Campion, who has always been pro-female protagonist, makes an exception with this namesake adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel: instead of a female character learning to find her feet in a male-dominated world, Campion lets Cumberbatch sweep us all with his toxic bravado while the layers of sentimentality are saved up for his most private moments. Campion juxtaposes Phil's persona against Peter's, with sexual tension galore and emotional baggage serving as the common component for them to bond over. 'The Power of the Dog' personifies unrealized dreams: Phil, like Bronco, wanted to be a mentor to a rather disappointing George. In Peter, he sees a glimmer of hope for the revival of that mentor-mentee relationship that he has always hankered after. Little did he know, Peter would crack open an array of emotions within him.

'The Power of the Dog' is 2021's visual masterpiece--with Campion winning the Venice Film Festival's Silver Lion for Best Director--as cinematographer Ari Wegner captures the anger, loneliness and complexity of the characters in her camera that leaves one gasping for breath. The ranch life, too, never looked so glamourous and tempting: every flip of a horse's tail is a story in itself. 

Kirsten Dunst evokes empathy as troubled Rose
Kirsten Dunst, as Rose, is drowning in alcoholism and unresolved issues and the actor internalizes her trauma with mastery. Her on-as-well-as-off-screen partner Jesse Plemons displays a plethora of emotions solely through his expressions: a quality Plemons has forever been appreciated for. The secret weapon in this sinister Western saga, however, is Kodi Smit-McPhee. You don't know what hits you once he is on frame. Like Phil, Kodi wraps his audience around his finger and there one stays till the very end.

Dark, desolate, disturbing and ominous are some of the apt adjectives for delineating Jane Campion's comeback film--yes, this is her first directorial venture after a hiatus of 12 years--and she unleashes ruthlessness of the central figure through an actor we did not know could do mean so exquisitely: Benedict 'marvelous' Cumberbatch. 

'The Power of the Dog' is now streaming on Netflix.