The Power of the Dog (2021)

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Just as she did with The Piano nearly thirty years ago, director Jane Campion exposes the tragic consequences of rigid gender conformity in The Power of the Dog. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as a deeply closeted gay cattle rancher in 1925 Montana. When his brother (Jesse Plemons) brings his new bride (Kirsten Dunst) and her effeminate son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to live with them, Cumberbatch cruelly torments them behind his brother’s back. But the son eventually wins Cumberbatch’s favor, opening the character dynamic wide open to terrifying possibilities of either love and redemption, or spite and revenge.

The film, based on a novel by Thomas Savage, begins as a fascinating character study. Though closeted, Cumberbatch’s character, Phil, puts up a convincing masculine fa├žade for a team of cattlemen who worship him. This puts all the more pressure on Phil to live up to their expectations. Campion gives us beautiful moments of privacy with him, including one where he lies in a secluded field of grass with a silk scarf he keeps stuffed in his underwear. We learn there is indeed a human being under the facade, one that longs for affection but is unable to ask for or receive any. The repression boils inside him, and explodes in a few scenes to the terror of those around him. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to toxic masculinity — the father of both misogyny and homophobia.

Halfway through its runtime, however, The Power of the Dog becomes beguilingly unpredictable. Is Phil a hero or an enemy? What is Smit-McPhee’s character, Peter? We learn the boy wants to be a surgeon and has no problem killing small animals to dissect in his bedroom. Peter’s father, whom he found hanged by suicide, worried that the boy was too strong — a confession that surprises Phil, who mocks Peter relentlessly in front of the ranch hands. In a move reminiscent of There Will Be Blood, the film morphs into a power struggle between a man driving himself to psychopathy for fear of exposing his desires, and a younger man who, despite all appearances, may already be a psychopath with nothing to hide.

The Power of the Dog features strong performances all around, as well as beautiful scenery and photography. The real star is Campion, who marries subtle, stolen moments with the characters to shots of the barren, windy environment around them. She’s a director interested in the storms within us and the wreckage they leave behind. It’s a mysterious film, a quiet psychological thriller of sorts, full of meaning. It’s one to study and talk about — one of my favorite kinds of movies.

Academy Award: Best Director

Oscar Nominations: Best Picture, Actor (Benedict Cumberbatch), Supporting Actress (Kirsten Dunst), Supporting Actor (Jesse Plemons), Supporting Actor (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Adapted Screenplay, Score (Jonny Greenwood), Production Design, Film Editing, Sound, Cinematography

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