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Film Review: The Power of the Dog (2021)

I will admit that my opinions — my true opinions — on this film came to me only after a rewatch. Having seen the extensive praise this received after it premiered at last year’s Venice Film Festival, I was one of those go-getters who eagerly jumped onto Netflix the day of its release, positive I was in for a treat; after all, most Oscars predictions seemed to be hailing this as 2021’s champion of cinema, so why wouldn’t I like it? Quite simply… it disappointed me. It disappointed me so much, in fact, that I could hardly tell you what had happened in it… because, on the surface, not all that much really does happen. But yes, I have since revisited this latest film from Jane Campion, and can confidently say that 2021 Jeremy was a fool.

Self-cynical retrospection aside, there is a point I’m trying to make. That point being… to get the most out of this film, you must be absolutely committed to not only playing it, but really WATCHING it. Somewhere the aforementioned Fool Jeremy fumbled in his expectations and his willingness to stay attentive and absorbed in a story that is wholly dictated by nuance and subtext. If you go in expecting anything even resembling a twisty-turny western adventure, you’ll be leaving with a frown on your face and your sight nearly eclipsed by your eyelids, if you manage to stay awake in the first place.

But ALL THIS is to say that, despite Fool Jeremy’s disinterest in a slow-burn western (something perhaps aided by his rendezvous with the super-fun The Harder They Fall less than a month prior), the New, Improved, and More Pretentious Jeremy finally GETS the hype surrounding this fantastic film. With my newfound appreciation for it, I would even go so far as to say that The Power of the Dog is the most revolutionary and unique film the western genre has seen in a long while. And this is a western through and through, albeit not the revenge-heavy gunslinger epics the genre frequents; no, this revisionist tale instead opts for a cold and calculated tale of a midwest thriller. It doesn’t ever aim to pull euphoric yelps from your mouth, but instead to send chills down your back.

And what better way to really get under your audience’s skin than with as vivid and filthy an antagonist as Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch). Already put off by the sudden infatuation of his brother George (Jesse Plemons) with a woman (Kirsten Dunst) he had only met days prior, Phil’s villainous habits only mount when “Georgie Boy” decides to marry her, and invite his new wife and her teenage son (Kodi-Smit McPhee) out to the ranch. For reasons we can only hope will be revealed to us by the end, Phil begins tormenting his brother’s family. What makes him such an effective villain is the distinct tonal change every time he appears on screen; even just seeing him in the background of a shot is enough to make you grip the armrests of your chair in dread of what he might do. It helps that Cumberbatch steps into this role so effectively… creating a painfully believable villain who haunts the ranch like a ghost that terrorizes you even during the daytime, one that you can’t help but despise even once you begin to understand his motives.

Cumberbatch isn’t alone in his outstanding performance, and it’s no wonder each of the four main cast members received an Oscar nomination. Dunst is as exhausting as she is sympathetic playing the resentful Rose, a woman who finds herself slowly losing it as Phil’s belittlement and provocation tortures her. Smit-McPhee meticulously crafts a reserved but quietly-confident character in Peter, a boy whose more apparent effeminate tendencies get him berated by the ranchers. And Plemons, a character who gets surprisingly little screen time for such a connecting point in the narrative, gives us a kind hearted but wary character in his role as George. It helps that each of these four has flawless chemistry with one another, and every scene has a unique tone dependent entirely on which of these core characters are present.

Peeling off the layers, The Power of the Dog is a meditative and chilling redefining of the western film genre. Its exploration of a family’s power dynamics make for a truly captivating tale of secrecy, manipulation, distrust, and toxic masculinity. It provides us with one of the most intriguing and complex characters in Phil Burbank, an antagonist for the ages. But again, don’t just pop this on the TV when you want to kill the time. Watch it — truly WATCH it — only when you’re in the right mindset for a slow-burn thriller.

Overall rating: 8/10

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Published by Jeremy Bader

Aspiring writer, film and music lover, drummer.

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