• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:April 2, 2022

Power of the Dog: War Games


Benedict Cumberbatch. Photo: Netflix

It’s been 12 years since Jane Campion made a movie. After directing two seasons of the thriller-drama series Top of the Lake, she was exhausted and considered retiring. Then as she was reading Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel ”The Power of the Dog”, she simply felt a need to do it as a movie. It even felt like a relief to just make a film rather than a whole TV series. Campion’s best movie since The Piano (1993) is a complex story, beautifully realized for the big sBAFTAcreen.

Meeting a widow and her son
Montana, 1925. Two brothers, Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons), are on a cattle drive when they come across a widow, Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The brothers are wealthy ranch-owners, close but still very different. Phil is a mean-spirited man, a bully who knows how to spot someone’s weakness and use it to his advantage. George is kind-hearted and quiet; there is affection between them and George knows that Phil depends on him, no matter how rudely he treats him.

When George falls for Rose and eventually marries her, Phil is infuriated. Not only has he targeted Peter for ridicule, but he starts manipulating Rose, becoming a huge reason why she starts drinking…

Convincingly filmed in New Zealand
Campion never really cared for Hollywood and has always remained close to her native New Zealand. The Power of the Dog may take place in Montana, but it was quite convincingly filmed in the southeast of New Zealand. Cinematographer Ari Wegner depicts desolate, windy locations that have prairies and mountains but few houses; there is isolation in the film’s look, and sometimes in the story as well, but also many intimate moments where Wegner’s camera creates a haunting impression.
A major theme here is how power shifts between different characters and there’s a scene in the second half of the film where Phil and Peter share a smoke that is essentially a simple act between two people, but we understand that there’s a powerful transaction going on between the characters because of how the scene is shot.

I don’t want to reveal too much about where the story takes us, but following the cruel game that Phil plays with Rose and her mind and then learning more about the great sorrow of his life and how Peter comes to learn his secret is arresting. The first half echoes Gaslight (1944) in some ways and the second half retains some of that tension even as the focus of the story changes, complete with a twist near the end. One theme that stays relevant throughout the picture is toxic masculinity, the cause of so many things that are wrong with our society, and Cumberbatch embodies it perfectly. George may exude authority in his own way, but Phil is the clear leader of their hired cowboys simply because of his loud, abrasive and domineering ways. The examination of his psyche and the desire to look beyond the obvious and warn us of what darkness may lie resting deeper in people’s souls are among the film’s prime assets.

There’s much in here to unpack; sometimes, Campion takes an interest in the stark contrast between the gilded world that made Phil and George rich and the down-to-earth life on the prairie that changed Phil’s emotional inner life years ago.

Cumberbatch received special attention from critics for his performance; his American English may be a struggle, but this is one of his best efforts, combining a sense of terror and vulnerability. He’s captivating, nicely matched by a great supporting cast, including Dunst as poor Rose and Smit-McPhee as Peter who takes the bullying in stride, burying himself in his books.

The Power of the Dog 2021-U.S.-Australia-New Zealand-Britain-Canada. 126 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Jane Campion, Iain Canning, Roger Frappier, Tanya Seghatchian, Emile Sherman. Written and directed by Jane Campion. Novel: Thomas Savage. Cinemtography: Ari Wegner. Music: Jonny Greenwood. Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch (Phil Burbank), Kirsten Dunst (Rose Gordon), Jesse Plemons (George Burbank), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Peter Gordon), Thomasin McKenzie, Genevieve Lemon… Keith Carradine.

Trivia: Paul Dano and Elisabeth Moss were first cast as Rose and George.

Oscar: Best Director. BAFTA: Best Film, Director. Venice: Best Director. 

Last word: “The #MeToo movement probably had some bearing on my decision. It was such a powerful force that I think it opened up a whole different space to explore this kind of subject matter. It was like those women, young women mostly, had peeled away so many layers of the onion as regards masculinity, that it created a space for old warriors like myself to explore a very male story like this one.” (Campion, The Guardian)



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