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TIFF 2021: ‘The Power of the Dog’ is a Deeply Rewarding Slow Burn

Jane Campion’s latest is a masterfully well-constructed film about masculinity with a third act that sneaks up on you.
The Power Of The Dog Cumberbatch
By  · Published on September 12th, 2021

This review of The Power of the Dog is part of our ongoing press coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival. From reviews to interviews to recap lists, follow along for all things TIFF 2021.

Among the many takeaways from The Power of the Dog, there’s an important lesson to never doubt Jane Campion‘s process. Though the film seems at times too broad for its own good, the legendary director expertly drops bread crumbs along the way that cohere into a deeply satisfying take on masculinity and family dynamics in the American frontier.

For the bulk of The Power of the Dog‘s runtime, it’s challenging to gauge where the story is headed, or if, in fact, it’s headed in a specific destination. And of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. With credit to Campion and her collaborators, even when the thrust of the film is not clear, it’s a highly enjoyable viewing experience.

Beginning in Montana in 1925, the natural landscape is captured beautifully by cinematographer Ari Wegner. As Campion sets the scene, we are introduced to brothers Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons, respectively). They live and work together on their family ranch but seem to lead vastly different lives. Phil is a perpetually filthy man who speaks like he’s spitting poison at his enemies and is, at all times, either rolling, lighting, or smoking a cigarette. George was educated away from the farm and has an open but much more timid disposition.

While life on the farm is tough, the scenery could not be any more stunning. But far more than just painterly images of mountain ranges, the setting is captured with fascinating contrasts of light and dark. The images play with perspective, conveying that this is not so much a serenely pastoral location, but one capable of shifting underfoot at any time.

Indeed, contrasts of light and dark permeate The Power of the Dog. During an early but highly informative dinner scene, George’s features are softened by the warmth of candlelight, whereas Phil’s signature wide brim hat casts a shadow on his face, accentuating Cumberbatch’s already prominent cheekbones, while a subtle backlight further paints him as an ominous figure. It’s a simple thing, but it’s a smart technique that provides a clear contrast between the characters. And while filmmaking as a grand, sweeping gesture is often what ends up being commended, there’s something to be said for small details continually and consistently executed well.

It also cannot be overstated how masterful Jonny Greenwood‘s score is. The string-heavy accompaniment is engaging without being intrusive, and the contrast of the piano is wonderfully well-paired with certain thematic elements revealed mid-way through the film. Greenwood has established himself as one of the most inventive composers working today, and The Power of the Dog will only strengthen his reputation.

But for all the objective points of quality in the filmmaking, there does need to be something more to The Power of the Dog in order for the film to not just be impressive but also impactful. This is where audiences may rub up against some necessary setbacks.

As the story unfolds, we’re introduced to the widowed cook Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). When Rose weds George, her arrival on the family ranch unsettles Phil, but it’s not quite clear exactly where his animosity stems from. We discover that Phil learned his ways from a deceased mentor and that he has some rather strict rules about how his farm is to be run. But Campion plays with the sense that there’s far more to him than we are privy to.

In Phil, or rather, in the thorniness of characterization that surrounds him, one of the film’s main thematic interests rears its head. Namely, masculinity as something inherited, intuitively mimicked, and intentionally performed. Cumberbatch’s acting style suits characters who provide him with something to chew on. Here, that comes in Phil’s acidic way of carrying himself and his contempt for many of those around him. His performance is a little too heightened to be considered naturalistic. But this serves the sensation that Phil’s mannerisms are, potentially, a performative compensation. But whether he’s a dimensional obstacle in the way of others or a warped anti-hero is firmly unclear.

This can make for a somewhat frustrating second act. While there are narrative developments — including Rose’s decline while adapting to life on the ranch and the shifting dynamic as Peter returns from school — there’s never a straightforward sense of whose story is leading the ensemble. It can be challenging to parse through the rich world on screen without a sense of direction. To The Power of the Dog‘s credit, for those fully enraptured by the film’s firm sense of place and the outstanding performances, the haziness of the plot will likely not sway them.

And even those who are swayed will likely find their way back. The trick here is that all of the second-act doubts about the focus of The Power of the Dog and its potential to impact are undoubtedly necessary to prevent the film from playing its hand far too soon. If it were apparent where it was heading, it wouldn’t hit so hard when it got there. It’s a bold move from Campion to take her time with the film and to not placate viewers with a clear narrative direction. When all the pieces fall into place, it’s clear that the clues were there from the start, but the feeling of gratification comes from the organic discovery.

As the film’s conclusion recontextualizes the past two hours, The Power of the Dog becomes truly impactful and the genius of its narrative is deeply rewarding. Campion brilliantly takes viewers on a journey and trusts them enough to make sense of the film’s broad strokes. The result is a profoundly satisfying puzzle of masculinity that is enthralling up to the last shot. The journey might not make everything clear, but the destination is one of the most fulfilling finales in recent memory. And while The Power of the Dog leaves quite a bit open to interpretation, the clear moral is that having faith in Campion will surely pay off.

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Anna Swanson is a Senior Contributor who hails from Toronto. She can usually be found at the nearest rep screening of a Brian De Palma film.