REVIEW: ‘The Power of the Dog’ (2021) Evokes Unspoken Desires and the Meaning of Masculinity

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

‘The Power of the Dog’ is emotional and complex, as the movie shows the meaning of masculinity in the American Western, and how terrifying it is.”

The Power of the Dog is Jane Campion’s first feature in more than ten years. It’s menacing and mysterious in its narrative, and presents itself to reveal something truly spectacular. The movie is adapted from Thomas Savage’s 1963 novel The Power of the Dog, and its title is derived from Psalm 22: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.” Campion’s interpretation of this story is about passion, an emotional and physical instinct or urge that is strong and dangerous. This danger lurks beneath the surface in the movie in the form of a character who torments others. 

Set in 1925, Montana, The Power of the Dog centres around two wealthy brothers who run a ranch— Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), a cowboy with a menacing exterior,  and George (Jesse Plemons), who prefers to acquaint with people of high social standing. When George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widow who runs the Red Mill restaurant with her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Phil is furious. Throughout the story, his presence and words are malicious, with eyes that glare at Rose and Peter from a distance. He bullies his brother and encourages his men to do the same, torturing Rose by playing his banjo when she plays the piano. He mocks Peter for making beautiful paper flowers for his mother’s restaurant, and when Rose moves into his home, it only gets worse. She descends into depression and alcoholism, and watches Phil teach Peter how to make a rope and ride horses. However, there is a side of this menacing cowboy that slowly unspools itself to reveal what’s behind his hide.  

A man (Cumberbatch) wears a cowboy hat and shirt, looking over his shoulder while riding a brown horse. The horse is seen from behind, with a blue sky and clouds as the backdrop.
Image courtesy of Netflix

A character who is mentioned but absent in The Power of the Dog is Bronco Henry, Phil’s close companion and friend who taught him the ways of the ranch by taking him up to the remote hills, showing him how to make rope and ride horses. Phil spends his time polishing Bronco’s saddle and talking about his mentor’s greatness. Campion’s direction in capturing Phil’s masculinity and hidden queer desires is subtle. Campion brings out the character’s passions and in doing so, subverts the viewer’s expectations. In Phil’s case, he shows his queer side in the hidden spot of the woods. He carries a cloth that perhaps once belonged to Bronco, as he caresses himself with it and wraps it around his neck. Phil’s desires and queerness are masked by toxic masculinity that he uses as a defence mechanism, but the viewer never forgets that he is not a good person. 

Cumberbatch is known to play and voice villainous characters like Illumination’s The Grinch, Smaug in The Hobbit trilogy, and Khan in Star Trek: Into Darkness. His tough and menacing portrayal as Phil is frightening, with a stone-cold face and a tongue that is sharp as a knife. Cumberbatch’s performance is channelled through rage and control mixed with layers of internalized hatred that Phil carries; perhaps because of not being able to express himself. The only person that Phil reveals a calmer and softer side of himself to is Peter, and yet his appearance is guarded. In a scene where Phil shows Peter how to make a rope, he talks about Bronco, and there is a sense of sincerity and tenderness coming from Phil never shown before. Cumberbatch portrays this heartbreaking and intense moment with such depth, it’s almost poetic. 

A young boy with short dark hair (Smit-McPhee) in a white shirt. He is seen looking at an object intently and using red thread while sitting at a table. Some of the thread can be seen dangling.
Image courtesy of Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

Plemons’ role as the kind and quiet George is a great balance to Dunst’s powerful and heartfelt performance as Rose. Campion’s treatment of her characters’ tenderness and emotional violence evokes throughout the woods and the remote hills. The Power of the Dog was shot in Campion’s native New Zealand and the location is divine. The movie also features a supporting performance by rising star Thomasin McKenzie, another New Zealander, who recently starred in Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho and M. Night Shyamalan’s Old. The Power of the Dog is emotional and complex, as the movie shows the meaning of masculinity in the American Western, and how terrifying it is. Articulating queer desires and leaving the unexpected ending to the audience, it is perhaps one of the best movies of the year.