Whenever there’s a fairly high profile film that Netflix releases I always try and see it if I get the chance. Seeing The Irishman in the cinema was an incredible experience but aside from that I haven’t actually seen that many in the cinema. So when the option came up to see The Power of the Dog on the big screen I jumped at the chance. I’ve been wanting to get more into the films of Jane Campion and I heard good things about this one, with it being one of the awards frontrunners this year and I ended up finding this a very powerful film.
The film takes place in 1925 and follows Phil and George Burbank, wealthy ranch owners, who meet widow and innkeeper Rose Gordon, who George quickly forms a relationship with, whilst Phil is openly hostile towards Rose and her son Peter. George and Rose soon marry, but the humiliation she receives from Phil soon turns Rose towards alcohol, something which is worsened when Peter starts spending more time with Phil. Now the main theme I found interesting in the film is the way it explores the nature of masculinity. Phil is pretty much the poster boy for toxic masculinity, revelling in his dirty and more brutal nature, choosing this life for himself despite the education and wealth he has, and there is a strong contrast between Phil and the more gentle nature of George, but also showing how the brothers are reliant on each other, and the growing jealousy that Phil has as a result of George’s love for Rose. We also see how George’s actions can be as controlling and demanding as Phil, but in a less obvious way. We do see that George is in love with Rose, but also how he uses Rose to fulfil his own desires for political and social standing. In this mix, we see how the demands of masculinity cause severe mental health issues for women, with Rose being a fascinating exploration of this kind of damage. There are also interesting ideas raised about the nature of being civilised and the homoeroticism of cowboy life and the loneliness of this life and the damage that this causes.
The performances as well are uniformly excellent. Benedict Cumberbatch gives one of the best performances in his career as Phil, showing a man who is deeply troubled and terrifying in the way his dangerous form of masculinity presents itself, but also showing Phil to be a deeply lonely and insecure man using his masculinity as a defence mechanism. This does not justify his horrible behaviour towards Rose, but it does let you understand how it manifests. There are also interesting moments in the second half of the film that completely recontextualise elements of Phil’s character, a lot of it through very subtle changes in Cumberbatch’s mannerisms. Kirsten Dunst meanwhile shows the growing depression and vulnerability of Rose effectively, showing how she is trying to create a good life for herself but finds herself isolated and alone, demonstrating how her turn towards alcohol to numb the pain of life evolves in her and there are loads of heart-breaking moments from her, detailing the profound sense of pain her character feels and how Phil’s ongoing psychological abuse makes it worse. Jesse Plemons as George meanwhile shows the more awkward and genial side of the character well, making a good contrast with Phil, but also shows his blind spots through him not noticing Rose’s alcoholism, and also how he thinks he is being kind towards Rose but is, in reality, causing more harm to her, such as the actions with the piano when they get married. Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter meanwhile is a very interesting performance. He is more of a quiet and academic type compared to Phil, but there is a clear darkness behind his eyes that manifests throughout the film and there is an interesting dynamic at play between Smit-McPhee and Cumberbatch throughout the film. I don’t really want to say more as it will spoil his performance but I found it to be really effective. I do think that Thomasin McKenzie, Keith Carradine and Frances Conroy were underutilised throughout the film, but they do add to the atmosphere of the film.
The technical elements of the film are strong throughout. Jane Campion uses the New Zealand landscape to create the mood of the American west, showing the isolation of the ranch effectively, demonstrating how it is cut off from wider society. There are elements of modern life that have come through, mainly through George owning a car, but the ranch still feels like an anachronism in the society of the time. The costumes and make-up work does a good job at highlighting the contrast between Phil and the other characters and Campion makes great use of shadows throughout the film. The obvious highlight of the technical elements of the film though is the incredible score by Jonny Greenwood. Between this and Spencer, Greenwood has been having a great year for film scores and hopefully one of these will finally net him his long overdue Oscar. The music is incredible at building the tone and atmosphere of the film and helps to give the film a lot of its power.
Overall, I found The Power of the Dog to be a powerful look at the dangers of toxic masculinity and the damage it causes to people, both the individuals with that mindset and those they interact with, buoyed by strong performances, especially from Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee and an incredible score by Jonny Greenworld, all working well under Jane Campion’s hands.
My Rating: 5/5