The age of romantic westerns is dead. The Coen Brothers saw to that in “No Country for Old Men”. That being said, the aesthetic is still alive and well. Whether in the form of comic-book films like “Logan” or in Netflix’s hip-hop ultraviolent “The Harder They Fall”. The point is, these days westerns are rarely ever the straight-laced white hat morality tales they used to be. Sometimes, they can be even used as the premise for psychological thrillers. Which is exactly what we got here with Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog”. A film that is an unfliching look into the rough and terrible life of the American frontier.
We didn’t know what to expect coming into a film about cowboy’s and ranchers. What we got was a heart-pounding, nerve-wracking look at the death of a way of life. Though, it’s not exactly the violent terror you’d expect. Rather, it’s the kind of agony found in the heated awkwardness of being in the same room with two people fighting. Let’s break it down!
The plot of the film follows the story of a widow, Rose and her son, Peter. Their lives will forever be changed by two cattle ranch owning brothers, George and Phil. George is a sweet, chubby man who wants nothing more than to escape the drudgery and expectations of him as a cattle rancher. Phil, on the other hand, is a cruel and cold rancher who loves the rough and tumble life. When George decides to marry Rose, Phil immediately resents her and her gentle son, Peter. As time goes on, Rose and Peter are soon swept up in a complicated relationship with Phil. One filled with secrets and lies.
“The Power of the Dog” is a sobering reminder that back in the old days, there were some very rigid and toxic standards of manhood. This is best embodied in the character of Phil, who delights in tormenting Peter due to his inability to measure up to the masculine image at the time. The pressure of it would either make your, or break you. So as we see Peter try to navigate through this life, we also begin to see Phil’s insecurities about the state of the world. People like him aren’t going to be needed for very long as the world becomes more civilized. This anxiety coupled with his idolization of the frontier life manifests in violent and scary ways that isn’t easy to predict.
Campion, who wrote and directed film, does a terrific job in amplifying this reality from distant fact to emotionally gripping drama. The use of silence to punctuate painful scenes of conversations whenever Phil is in the room is an inspired choice. Then out of nowhere you hear Jonny Greenwood’s score of hissing violins creep over like a rattle snake waiting to pounce. “The Power of the Dog” is constructed with the sole purpose to unnerve and we love it! It makes every interaction with Phil a battle, a revelation or a glimpse into his past.
Perhaps, the only thing that may put some people off would be the film’s pace. Admittedly, there are times when the film luxuriates in its scenery and setting. Particularly the scenes that involve the majestic mountain ranges and clear, open sky. We get that Campion was trying to create a sense of atmosphere but perhaps a less static approach could have been used.
All these little imperfections fade away, though, in light of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Phil Burbank. We’ve seen Cumberbatch play insensitive jerks in the past but he is on a whole different level here. First off, he utterly nails the Southern accent. If you didn’t tell us he was English, we wouldn’t have guessed it. There’s a silent rage always brewing beneath his breath, just waiting to explode. One scene that left us wincing uncomfortably is when he whips a horse out of frustration. We also get to see a shocking vulnerability to Phil, one that almost has us rooting for him. This is arguably his most compelling performance we’ve see in his career.
He’s bolstered by an excellent cast of actors. Jesse Plemons does a great job in his portrayal as George, a man who lives in the shadow of his brother and has finally found a reason to leave the life. Oh, fun fact, Kirsten Dunst who plays Rose is also married to Plemons in real life. That would certainly explain why they have such believable on-screen chemistry together. Dunst isn’t just a pretty damsel here though. Initially she’s terrified of Phil but begins to find her courage when she sees Phil spending more time with Peter. It culminates in a shocking revelation that will leave your jaw on the floor. Kodi Smit-McPhee as the sensitive, wide-eyed Peter can be a tad annoying at first but we got used to him. Especially when he hangs around Phil.
“The Power of the Dog” isn’t something we’d recommend you pop on the couch and watch to relax. It’s a very intense film that will require you to expend some time and energy. There are also some rather uncomfortable scenes of animal treatment, which while accurate can be disturbing for some viewers. That being said, we can gurantee that you’ll leave with a whole new appreciation for American westerns and Cumberbatch’s talent.
Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” delivers brutal drama set in the unforgiving era of cattle-ranching, toxic masculinity and common violence. Thanks to Campion’s strong direction, the film’s rivetting plot acts as a worthy vehicle to showcase Benedict Cumberbatch’s tour de force performance as the cruel but complex Phil Burbank. His role here continues to cement his distinguished place in the world of cinema. He’s come a long way from his days in BBC’s “Sherlock”, and he’s redeemed himself from that awful Boston accent in “Black Mass”! You can now catch “The Power of the Dog” on Netflix today!
So, what was your favourite film starring Benedict Cumberbatch? Do you think he deserves an Oscar for his performance? Be sure to let us know in the comments!
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Netflix's "The Power of the Dog" Review
Jane Campion's "The Power of the Dog" delivers brutal drama set in the unforgiving era of cattle-ranching, toxic masculinity and common violence. Thanks to Campion's strong direction, the film's rivetting plot acts as a worthy vehicle to showcase Benedict Cumberbatch's tour de force performance as the cruel but complex Phil Burbank. One that continues to cement his distinguished place in the world of cinema.
- Netflix's "The Power of the Dog" Review