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The Power of the Dog TIFF Review

★★★★

Directed and Written by: Jane Campion

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst

 


 

Jane Campion, despite attaining much deserved respect, has not made many films in her over 20-year long career. After a break of 11 years, she has returned to the silver screen to adapt Thomas Savage’s novel The Power of the Dog into a film for Netflix. It is an affirmation of her skill and one of the highlights of the year.


In 1925 Montana, the lives of ranch owner brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) are changed when George marries widow Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst). From there, Phil’s jealously and already domineering/toxic personality grow even worse, especially once Rose’s son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) comes into the mix.


Campion’s approach filmmaking-wise is very old-fashioned, with a slow pace and wide-angle shots that allow the environment to sink in. Yet her narrative feels tight and deliberate, with some scenes that seem like strange non-sequiturs turning out to have major consequences later on. With such craft on display, this allows the themes of the story to sink in and the characters to be who they are.


Phil Burbank starts off like a typical portrait of a bully, yet in the third act cleverly becomes something more vulnerable and even sympathetic. The relationship between him and Peter is rife with multiple interpretations, as is the true nature of Peter himself. These two characters are central to the subtext of toxic masculinity and sexuality that make for compelling drama and post film discussion.


This is brought to life by the excellent performances, particularly from Benedict Cumberbatch, who possibly gives his best performance to date. He is utterly convincing and intimidating, which comes from his refusal to play a caricature and from his rough and confident physical/vocal delivery. He shares great chemistry with Kodi Smit-McPhee, who also underplays his role in a manner that makes his character interestingly ambiguous. Jesse Plemons makes for a great straight counterpart to Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst is mainly asked to be vulnerable and broken, but she pulls it off magnificently. The only strange bit of casting is Thomasin McKenzie as a maid, who either initially had a bigger role or just took on a very small and minor part just to be in a Jane Campion movie, because otherwise it’s a non-use of an excellent up and coming actress.


The cinematography is grim and muddy, getting across the rural setting and creating an environment that is natural and spacious yet contained and ugly. The soundtrack by Jonny Greenwood is another hit for the former Radiohead member, creating a tense soundscape but also knowing when to be absent as a way of creating even more tension.


The Power of The Dog is one of this year’s best films and another artistic achievement for Campion, being a great reminder of how complex and thoughtful cinema can be, with a challenging and unflinching nature that Jane Campion is very capable of providing and continues to provide.

 

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