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The Power of the Dog
Image Courtesy of TIFF

Film

TIFF 2021: The Power of the Dog is a Patient, Complex Character Study

Jane Campion returns to feature films after over a decade with The Power of the Dog, an acting showcase and a richly layered portrait of a man wrestling with his inner demons.

The Power of the Dog Review

Two ranchers in 1920’s Montana find themselves at the crossroads of their lives – one ready to settle down and find love, the other now on a self-destructive path forged by jealousy and bitterness. Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog is a beautiful, textured dissection of machismo and a canvas for Benedict Cumberbatch to provide his greatest performance to date. Aided by an exceptional cast all giving their best work, gorgeous cinematography, a tremendous score, and Campion’s delicate touch, The Power of the Dog is a remarkable character study that sees through its lead’s hardened exterior.

When Phil Burbank (Cumberbatch) sees his brother, George (Jesse Plemons) begin growing distant and settle down, something inside of him begins to break. George marries the local widow, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and becomes step-father to her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who both immediately fear Phil’s bad temper and hostile demeanor. Peter goes off to college with the hopes of becoming a doctor, leaving the ranch to George, Rose, Phil, and Phil’s fellow ranchers that aid him through the year.

The Power of the Dog
Image Courtesy of TIFF

Campion adapts Thomas Savage’s novel of the same name with gentle patience that she’s proven to be a master at employing. Phil reflects on his past with George as the coldness between them grows, suggesting better times before now, but never really showing it. That divide expands over time and through Cumberbatch’s incredible performance and the nuanced detail of his character, his torment over losing his brother eats at him inside. It’s painful to watch and the way Phil lashes out externally is what gives it this feeling of someone trapped as the world closes in around him – both of his own doing and because of the way he was raised.

The Power of the Dog is nothing without its performances, all of which are astounding at the minimum. The two major standouts though are Dunst and Cumberbatch, who also happen to spend most scenes together not sparring in the over-the-top manner usually reserved for films of this caliber but instead quietly brooding – each contemptuous glare digging deep into the other. Every scene between them is filled with this dead air that consumes the entirety of the scene, creating tension and anxiety in every action made. 

Making every frame a delight to watch is Ari Wegner’s beautiful cinematography delivering an immersive sense of time and place with great help from the costume and production designers. The Power of the Dog is a gorgeous movie, and Wegner’s use of shadows combined with scenes of vibrant beauty accentuates an already detailed character study in Phil Burbank. Johnny Greenwood’s score here is also exceptionally moving, amplifying the tension while setting the perfect mood for each scene. Another level of immersion in this attempt to capture a period of transition and a man disoriented by it.

The Power of the Dog
Image Courtesy of TIFF

What ends up separating The Power of the Dog from many other westerns though is its palpable sexual tension. Campion’s able to capture empathy and frustration in the early parts of the film that set the scene for a back-half oozing with sensuality and compassion. It also takes all of the masculinity on prominent display and glimpses underneath to find inner demons that are ripping Phil’s soul apart. A lot of this is Cumberbatch’s performance but there’s a level of comfort between the camera and him that sees past the façade of performance both for the actor and the character.

The Power of the Dog’s languid pacing will likely deter many audience members, but Campion proves somewhat quickly that patience is rewarded. Even in its opening moments, it’s easy to get frustrated with a familiar setup, but it doesn’t take long for the intricacies of the screenplay to reveal themselves and for the actors to hypnotize. They’re all working on another level here, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better acting showcase this year than in The Power of the Dog.

The 46th edition of the Toronto International Film Festival, taking place September 9–18, is tailored to fit the moment, with physical screenings and drive-ins, digital screenings, virtual red carpets, press conferences, and industry talks. Find all our coverage here.

Written By

Chris is a graduate of Communications from Simon Fraser University and resides in Toronto, Ontario. Given a pint, he will talk for days about action films, video games, and the works of John Carpenter.

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