Film Review: THE POWER OF THE DOG (2021): Director Jane Campion’s Compelling Western Showcases Solid Lead Performances


Kirsten Dunst The Power Of The Dog

The Power of the Dog Review

The Power of the Dog (2021) Film Review, a movie directed by Jane Campion and starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kenneth Radley, Sean Keenan, George Mason, Ramontay McConnell, Cohen Holloway, Alistair Sewell, Alice Englert, Jacque Drew, Frances Conroy and Thomasin McKenzie.

Director Jane Campion (The Piano)’s terrifically shot new film, The Power of the Dog, is a Western that has complex characters and a story line that leaves the viewer wondering which way the characters will turn at every given moment. It is based on a novel by Thomas Savage. Benedict Cumberbatch plays the movie’s central role. He is the mysteriously cold and nasty Phil Burbank who likes to criticize people and seemingly has a heart made of stone. One scene where Phil castrates a a bull calf is demonstrative of his unsympathetic nature.

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This film is set in Montana in 1925. While the movie revolves around rancher Phil and his brother George (Jesse Plemons is back in top form) in the beginning stages, soon Rose Gordon (a terrific Kirsten Dunst) and her son Peter (well played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) come into the picture. Rose is a widowed mom whose husband committed suicide and Peter is an artistically driven young man who has medical school aspirations and designs paper flowers at the restaurant he and his mother work in. When Phil sets one of the flowers ablaze and harshly speaks of Peter, the movie makes it clear that Phil is not a nice guy. He is rugged and wicked although as the film progresses, he may just surprise you with some of his actions. It appears Phil’s weak spot is when the subject of one Bronco Henry comes up. Henry was Phil’s mentor and there are reasons that Phil has an admiration for him which the film makes clear as the chapters in the movie progress.

The well dressed sympathetic businessman George marries Rose which propels the plot into action. Partly because Plemons and Dunst are real-life partners, their relationship feels plausible on screen and the two actors throw themselves into their roles with Dunst always coming up more fleshed out as a character. Dunst’s Rose eventually becomes an alcoholic and it could be due in large part to Phil’s insensitivity, not to mention the loss of Peter’s dad. Dunst ably conveys her character’s suffering on screen in one of her best screen roles to date. Watch closely a scene where she gets nervous when asked to play the piano. It sets the stage for what is to come in terms of her character development.

Jonny Greenwood adds a musical score to the film which has Oscar written all over it as it helps define the characters, particularly the supremely wicked nature of Cumberbatch’s Phil. However, Phil has some depth to him. He’s not simply a horrible person. Cumberbatch’s multi-layered performance reveals many different aspects of this character’s personality and it’s impossible to look away when Cumberbatch is on screen. He’s a shoo-in for a Best Actor Oscar nomination.

As Peter and Phil form an interesting bond, we can see where this story is ultimately headed a mile away as the ends will ultimately justify the means as far as the plot development is concerned. The question of how the movie will get there is the movie’s strength. Smit-McPhee and Cumberbatch are two terrific performers and play off each other with a remarkable intensity that comes across terrifically on screen under Campion’s capable direction.

There are some problems here. One unforgivable one is the underuse of Thomasin McKenzie as a maid. She’s given so little to do here which is surprising after she’s been seen in mostly starring roles lately. She’s way overqualified to be playing this role which simply helps announce the next details of the plot through the dialogue she speaks in key scenes. Another letdown is the movie’s occasional reliance on the beautiful cinematography to define the characters instead of fully fleshing them out through dialogue. Sometimes the transition between scenes feels forced instead of organic and one character gets lost in the shuffle–which is George. He’s simply a nice guy–nothing more or nothing less despite Plemons’ fine work.

With that said, Benedict Cumberbatch hits the ball out of the park here coming up with his finest screen work to date. Kirsten Dunst is wonderfully intriguing and keeps the audience emotionally invested in her character which could have been lost in the shuffle in a lesser film. The movie focuses on Phil and Peter but Dunst’s Rose is equally focused which makes it hard not to feel sympathetic for her character.

The Power of the Dog is director Jane Campion in top form, for the most part anyway. She has drawn excellent performances from her actors and this is a movie that will hold your interest from beginning to end. Benedict Cumberbatch will be appearing at next year’s Oscar ceremony for sure for his work in this totally absorbing movie.

Rating: 8/10

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