Montana, 1925. A widow named Rose (Kirsten Dunst) has just married a farmer named George (Jesse Plemons) and moved to his mansion where his brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) also lives. After the set up, there is one particular scene that becomes one of the most horrifying scenes of this year. Rose, who is unwelcomed by Phil, practices Strauss’ “Radetzky March” on the piano and hits the wrong notes over and over again. She then hears the echo of the same song coming from upstairs. Later, we see Phil step out from the shadows, playing the song on his banjo fluently and leaving Rose shivering terrifyingly.
Based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same title, “The Power of the Dog” is the great New Zealand auteur Jane Campion’s first feature film after “Bright Star” 12 years ago. This Western thriller is a psychological study of toxic masculinity and sexuality, which Netflix will release in theaters then available for streaming on Dec. 1, and it’s going to be the streamer’s top contender for the coming awards season. Campion and her cinematographer Ari Wegner use the wild landscape of New Zealand to fill in for Montana. The images are beautiful yet lonely, and the emotions are vast yet sharp with Jonny Greenwood’s heavy score that makes “The Power of the Dog” feel alive even in its stillest scene.
Cumberbatch’s performance is masterful from the beginning to the end. The British actor cruelly dominates every single scene whether he’s in it or not, and he has never been better. With his entire body and clothes covered in dirt, he delivers Phil’s masculine crisis by consistently proving he’s the toughest man on the ranch while hiding his affection for a mysterious absent male figure. His stone cold eyes and expression is his facade, and he’s like a predator hiding in the dark, ready to swallow anyone who threatens his place on the field.
From “Sweetie” through “The Piano” to “Bright Star” and to her television work “Top of the Lake,” Campion had always focused on female characters and the power shifting between them. “The Power of the Dog” might be her most masculine film to date. Despite being tortured and abused emotionally by Phil, Dunst’s devastating Rose is, however, the beating heart of the film. She’s a troubled woman who lives in a men’s world and gradually accepts the fact that the world, as well as the power, does not have any chance to stand on her side.
Even with Cumberbatch and Dunst’s award-worthy performances that might have chance to push these two actors to win their first Oscar, Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays Rose’s son Peter, becomes the biggest surprise of the film as he snatches several moments to shine even plays against Cumberbatch. When no one until Peter sees the shape of a barking dog on the side of the mountain, the connection between Phil and Peter starts to have a very deep tension and develops into something erotic. You probably will assume the film is heading to “Brokeback Mountain” from here, but I can assure you nothing will prepare you for the sensational performance from this 25 years old Australian rising actor.
“The Power of the Dog” is the wonder of the year. It’s Campion’s another masterpiece as she observes masculinity and power like no one else, and sharply examines classification with the twist ending. This year, Julia Ducournau’s “Titane” became the second female Palme d’Or winner after Campion’s “The Piano” historically won the award in 1993. In the same year, Campion was so close to becoming the first female Oscar-winning director but lost to Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” (though we all agree the greatness of “Schindler’s List”). Directing has infamously being seen as men’s game for a long time. Perhaps Academy should justify itself and award Campion as the third female Best Director winner after Kathryn Bigelow (“The Hurt Locker”) and Chloe Zhao (“Nomadland”), the achievement she deserved to have back in 1993.
- Distributor: Netflix
- Production: See-Saw Films, Brightstar, Max Films International, BBC Films, Cross City Films, and New Zealand Film Commission
- Director: Jane Campion
- Writer: Jane Campion
- Producer: Jane Campion, Iain Channing, Roger Frappier, Tanya Seghatchian, and Emile Sherman
- Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Kristen Dunst
- “The Power of the Dog” premiered at Venice Film Festival 2021. Available on Netflix December 1.
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