Review: The Power of the Dog

Written and directed by Jane Campion, charismatic rancher Phil Burbank inspires fear and awe in those around him. When his brother brings home a new wife and her son, Phil torments them until he finds himself exposed to the possibility of love. Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirsten Dunst and Thomasin McKenzie.

While there are plenty of unsurprising factors to this film, its splendid, vast visuals and incredible acting talent, the surprising element is just how impactfully it builds an atmosphere of tension and foreboding. It’s all the more impressive in that it never tries to stray far from drama, its focus is unwaveringly about family but it’s packed with this remarkable intensity. If you looked at it as a whole you could potentially say it moves quite slowly but it’s actually paced out extremely well to only get more gripping as time goes on. Its story is filled with complexity, there’s a hundred different avenues you could go down with these characters and what’s fascinating about it, is that it never actually delves into them overtly. It’s a classic case of humanity allowing emotions and desires to fester under the surface. For someone looking for definitive answers you may or may not get them, it purely depends on how you interpret what you’re given.

One of the best examples of its subtlety is the relationship between Kirsten Dunst’s Rose and Benedict Cumberbatch’s Phil because it’s both unspoken and yet obvious. Dunst’s portrayal of Rose’s downward spiral shows how much she’s underestimated as an actor, it’s fantastic and chaotic, it’s only a shame you don’t get to see more of her. Cumberbatch’s performance is a crescendo of ups and downs, going from intensely quiet to outwardly threatening. He presents Phil as a very intelligent man who chose his life carefully, he’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing to most people but Rose sees through it, leaving her vulnerable to his punishing presence. Cumberbatch’s portrayal may even be too understated at times for some but when matched against Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Peter, it comes out of its shell.

Smit-McPhee is delightfully unexpected here, some of his performance is very much what we know of him already but there’s budding layers beneath which get more satisfying as time goes on. There’s then the ever welcome addition Jesse Plemons, who doesn’t actually get too involved as time goes on but still gives a great performance. He brings a sincerity and naivety to George, he’s loving and kind but undermined by his lifelong search to move out of Phil’s shadow and become a success. Thomasin McKenzie on the other hand gets very little involvement at all, a couple of brief moments but it feels like a slight waste of her growing talent. It’s quite unusual that she’s featuring in a leading role of Last Night in Soho and a barely supporting one here being released within weeks of each other. Then again, all timings are up in the air after the constant changes and delays in the past two years.

Even just from preview footage, you can tell how visually stunning this film is going to be and it doesn’t disappoint. A key factor of the film’s stellar intensity is the beautiful landscapes it captures, they add an unbeatable atmosphere. It’s full of brilliant cinematography from Ari Wegner, it completely takes advantage of the picturesque locations and creates something affecting and emotional. Campion captures the vastness of the setting with the intimacy of its story, yet again unsurprisingly powerful visual work from a director who knows exactly how to deepen her stories with well chosen locations. While she brings the tension with her direction and writing, its pushed to its peak by the work of Jonny Greenwood, who’s becoming one of the best film composers working today.

The Power of the Dog is the type of film that should be seen on the big screen to appreciate the power of Jane Campion and Ari Wegner’s work. It’s visually exceptional and a joy to watch unfold but it works to serve the real star here which is the story, it’s packed with intensity, tension and complex layers of emotion. Its characters are fascinating and given true justice by the brilliant casting work, Kirsten Dunst is given a terrific platform to show more of what’s she capable of, and does exactly that with a marvellous performance. It’s truly gripping and has a story full of so much potential, you’re constantly questioning where it might go and its ultimate journey doesn’t disappoint.

Verdict: ✯✯✯✯ | 8/10

In Cinemas Now & Coming to Netflix on 3 December

Reviewed as part of London Film Festival 2021

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