NYFF: ‘THE POWER OF THE DOG’ Is All Bark and All Bite

Not even one month ago, Clint Eastwood tackled toxic masculinity in “Cry Macho.” Now, Jane Campion—along with her all-star cast—tackle the same subject, in one of the most beautiful films of the year. While not the most digestible—the pacing is unhurried—the payoff is well worth your patience, as “The Power of the Dog” is a thought-provoking film about toxic masculinity that will keep you thinking well after viewing it. You will be equally impressed with the filmmaking as you will be the acting and narrative in this adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name. 

Taking place in the 1920s in Montana, Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Phil, a rancher who begins as grumpy as the aforementioned Clint Eastwood if you step on his lawn. He’s a bitter and fierce rancher, who commonly calls his brother George (Jesse Plemons) “fatso,” and makes fun of Peter, or as Phil calls him later in the film, “Pete,” for his speech impediment and using a rag while serving food. While Cumberbatch’s American accent in his first few appearances as Doctor Strange in the Marvel Cinematic Universe was humorous to say the least, his South drawl is as perfect as it was in “12 Years a Slave.” As impressive as Cumberbatch’s ability to replicate a Southern accent is, it is equally remarkable that an actor who usually takes on relatively likable characters is able to be so despicable in a film like “The Power of the Dog.” Phil is like any other bully; he receives an extra bit of confidence while around his group of “yes men” despite being a very insecure person himself. In a scene where George and Phil lay in the same bed, George lays straight on top of the blankets, free and open as seen in his characters’ ability to have sympathy and not take himself too seriously (e.g., George ends up using a rag in a similar fashion to Peter while serving food). Phil, meanwhile, pulls the covers up and this could be seen as a shield of sorts, representing his closed-off nature. Phil also loves to torment Rose (Kirsten Dunst), with the weirdest example being when Phil attempts to intimidate her by playing his banjo fiercely overtop of her piano playing. 

It is always fun to see a real-life couple share the screen, especially if their characters fall in love. Just look at Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s trilogy of films when they were together, or how Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone’s chemistry saved “The Amazing Spider-Man.” Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst are no exception to this type of success; the latter has an especially delicate, but beautiful performance. Dunst’s character of Rose—Pete’s mother—marries George. She goes through an awfully relatable character arc consisting of not getting along with Phil, her brother-in-law, and getting so anxious over the possibility of not being good enough for Phil and George’s parents to the point of relying on alcohol. Dunst will likely be overshadowed by Cumberbatch, but should not go unnoticed for her performance.

(L to R): Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank, Jesse Plemons as George Burbank in “The Power of the Dog.” Cr. Kirsty Griffin/Netflix © 2021

One thing that can be universally agreed upon about “The Power of the Dog” is how beautiful the film is. In fact, its desolate desert landscapes and mountains make the recent film, News of the World come to mind (also for its similar presentation of a Western), and “The Power of the Dog” may rival “Blade Runner 2049” as the most gorgeous looking film in the past decade. It is hard not to get swept up in some of the aerial shots that are akin to a National Geographic documentary. Radiohead keyboardist/guitarist and frequent Paul Thomas Anderson collaborator Jonny Greenwood (“There Will Be Blood,” “Inherent Vice,” “Phantom Thread”) has an impressive fall coming up. He composed scores for “Spencer” (a major awards contender); “Licorice Pizza”; and of course, “The Power of the Dog.” His score is unsettling, always building up and making you anxiously crawl into your seat as you await a sudden action. The moments of tension do not usually lead to anything actually scary, “The Power of the Dog,” but the score is the biggest reason for any tension existing at all.

“The Power of Dog” is not your traditional Western. Sure, there are cowboys with spurs in their boots; a desolate town; the floor’s wood creaks with every step; but if you’re expecting Benedict Cumberbatch to walk into a saloon with a six-shooter in each hand, you will leave disappointed. But exempting itself from some of the genre tropes allows “The Power of the Dog” to shine. Let’s give Netflix some credit as well, as they have consistently been in the Oscars discussion for the last half-decade, and a lot of that is due to their distribution. They distributed “Roma,” “The Irishman,” “Marriage Story,” “The Two Popes,” among many others that have brought credibility and respect to the streaming service that began as a DVD rental service that mailed DVDs. “The Power of the Dog” has plenty of potential for awards and will continue to be in the discussion at every major ceremony. What may hold it back is the pacing, and the fact that it is not a “guns blazing” Western film may turn viewers off, but Netflix took a big swing with “The Power of the Dog,” and it will likely bark back with some great returns in the form of awards. “The Power of the Dog” has been a hot topic since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, and suffice to say, it lives up to all of the hype. “The Power of the Dog” is one of the best films of the year and, like pet dogs, will continue to live in your mind rent-free.

Grade: A-

“The Power of the Dog” had its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival and will have a limited theatrical release on November 17 before its streaming release on Netflix on December 1.