What They Say:
Charismatic rancher Phil Burbank inspires fear and awe in those around him. When his brother brings home a new wife and her son, Phil torments them until he finds himself exposed to the possibility of love.
Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
An old-fashioned cowboy sits at a dinner table, looking at paper flowers that decorate the room. He asks which lovely lady made them before a skinny, queer-looking boy says that he made them. Disgusted by the lack of manliness in the decorations, he makes a rude comment while lighting one of them on fire. He is an old-fashioned herder who wears his manhood with pride, and he is offended at the “sissy-ness” he sees on display. Later in life when circumstances bring the boy to live on his farm he is just as offended at the notion…until he realizes that this may be an opportunity. An opportunity for what? Friendship? Lesson teaching? Love? This is Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), a man who you think is just your everyday bigoted psychopath until you get to know him a little bit more.
Is Phil a psychopath? Unquestionably yes. Is he an evil man? That may be harder to say. Is he easy to figure out? Not in a million years. I sense writer/director Jane Campion knows though. The way Phil acts towards other people and the words he uses are deliberate and calculated. Even the way he holds himself when he sits down for dinner is that of a man making a visual statement. What that statement is we can only guess, and that’s what makes him such a fascinating character to study. Despite the aura of Phil holding power over the people in his life viewers get the sense that he’s hiding in plain sight. Such is the power of Phil and the beauty of “The Power of the Dog,” a character study so unconventional that I walked away feeling like I hadn’t seen anything like it before. Sure, I’ve seen character studies where the protagonists are reserved and secretive.
Yes, I’ve seen movies where the silence speaks louder than words. I’ve even seen movies where the cinematography is telling you more about the lives of the characters than the screenplay is. I’ve never seen a movie where all these elements come together in a way that manages to convince you of one thing only to reveal that you never had anything figured out to begin with. It’s a film that has the potential to be taught in film school in several different classes, all with teachers telling their students to study a different aspect of it. The acting is universally excellent, so aspiring actors may want to take note of how Cumberbatch manages to fool you into thinking you have his character figured out when you really know nothing at all. Aspiring actresses will take notice of the excellent work by Kirsten Dunst as Phil’s sister-in-law, who marries a good man but is struggling to deal with his (apparently) psycho brother.
Her son is the queer-looking boy who everyone in the town calls “faggot,” and while he seems like the last person on Earth Phil would entertain being friends with…well, give them a chance to talk, and they may discover they share some common secrets no one else would understand. No one is who they appear and yet they wind up where they do in life almost as if they were always destined to land there. It is a confident screenplay that doesn’t spell out the answers (or even has much to say sometimes), yet by the end of the film, we all look at each other with an understanding nod. “The Power of the Dog” is therefore not so much a movie about what happens but by what we perceive to happen; happy to take us along for the ride until our emotions kick in and we feel the feelings we feel when an unexpected connection takes place in our lives.
“The Power of the Dog” lives up to its name by being one of the most powerful films of the year. It’s beautiful, foreboding, and mysteries all intertwine to give us something wholly unique. It’s a film that defies any words a critic’s pen can put to a page, and its effects are so subtle this critic didn’t even realize how he was being played until it was too late. It’s the kind of confident film that reminds me of “Roma,” whose brilliance was in the experience of the film rather than the story that was presented in front of us. Ironically, that film and this one is brought to us by Netflix, who seems content to make one great theatrical experience a year before dumping it on the streaming platform for it to be ignored by their millions of subscribers. It’s a shame because a film of this magnitude deserves undivided attention to truly appreciate it. I wonder if people who stream it in their living rooms will have the patience for an experience like this…?
Streamed By: Netflix
“The Power of the Dog” has been nominated for 12 Academy Awards including: Best Picture, Best Director – Jane Campion, Best Actor – Bennedict Cumberbatch, Best Supporting Actor – Kodi Smit-McPhee, Best Supporting Actor – Jesse Plemons, Best Supporting Actress – Kirsten Dunst, Best Adapted Screenplay – Jane Campion, Best Original Score – Jonny Greenwood, Best Production Design, Best Sound, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing