The Power of the Dog tells a story of toxic masculinity on a western set starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kristen Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Kodi Smit-McPhee. The Power of the Dog, directed by Jane Campion, was premiered at the 78th Venice Film Festival and won the Best Director prize, The Silver Lion.
*This review contains spoilers for The Power of the Dog movie*
The story of The Power of the Dog is about two brothers, Phil Burnback (Cumberbatch) and George Burnback (Jesse Plemons), who run a ranch in Montana. The movie starts with Phil working on the field and George taking a bath. At the very beginning of the film, we see how these two brothers are different. One is busy with dirty work, the other is preoccupied only with himself.
Not long after, Phil and George come across Red Mill, where they meet Rose (Kristen Dunst) and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil lights his cigarette with a burning paper flower made by Peter to show his masculinity and tell the teenage boy that making paper flowers is not something a man should do. This action makes Rose sad but George will eventually calm her down.
All of a sudden, we see Rose and George together, married. Although it was predictable, I wished Campion put a little more time into their relationship and chemistry. As the film continues, this problem doesn’t get solved, and the relationship between Rose and George feels uncompleted and unauthentic even after the movie ends.
Benedict Cumberbatch not only delivers the best performance of the year by far, but he also surpasses his previous performances as well. As the first act of the movie is longer than usual, the mesmerizing acting of Cumberbatch takes the attention of the viewer hostage. His acting was so strong that you think the film is missing something when he isn’t in the scene.
Although the story of The Power of the Dog is mainly about Phil, the film doesn’t say much about other characters. Even when it does, it is too late. George is one of the main characters that the movie doesn’t put time on. We know that he and his brother have some problems, but it is only discussed vaguely and can be easily missed.
Phil was once close to Bronco Henry, and because of what happened between them, he feels ashamed and therefore acquires a toxic masculinity identity for himself. “I stink and I like it,” to put it in his own words. His unhealthy manners are a façade for the boy, who is ashamed to tell people that he had to sleep with another man to survive.
This vague portrayal of Phil works perfectly for him once we know his backstory. But my problem with the story is that Campion treats every character like Phil. Every character is vague, and there is so little to know about them. For the mentioned reason, this way of showing a character works for Phil, but not for a guy like George who invites the governor to his house. Or for Rose or any other person.
The story was set in 1925. An era in which today’s toxic masculinity was simply masculinity. The setting and the events of the film help each other tell a more powerful and straightforward story. Not only that, but it helps to see the character of Phil fuzzy in a way that viewers would understand why he keeps a secret identity.
The story of The Power of the Dog is not a complex one that pairs perfectly with its rural setting. One of the significant points of The Power of the Dog is that it doesn’t wander around tackling everything on its way. It stays faithful to its story and does a magnificent job of telling it too.
Campion did a magnificent job of showing this story in the simplest way possible. Not only by writing it simple but by directing and too. There aren’t any scenes too complex, dialogues, or shots. Keeping a story straight without wandering around is hard. It is like sculpture, and it’s hard to know what you should keep and what you should do away with.
In the end, I want to mention what an excellent job Johnny Greenwood did, as always. Not only did he help the storytelling, but also set the tone right for some particular scenes.
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The Power of the Dog is a simple story about a man portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch who loses himself in toxic masculinity. Cumberbatch delivers the best acting of his career with a screenplay that doesn’t have much complexity. Although some character arcs could have been better, Campion succeeds in telling her story simply and straight to the point. And once again, Greenwood brings his magic to make a movie that touches the soul.