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TIFF Film Review: ‘The Power of the Dog’ Burns With Quiet Intensity and Impeccable Acting

THE POWER OF THE DOG: BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH as PHIL BURBANK in THE POWER OF THE DOG. Cr. KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX © 2021
Netflix

Throughout her career, Jane Campion has observed femininity and feminine behavior through her distinctly personal lens. Campion’s unique sensibilities now turn towards masculinity with The Power of the Dog. While that may sound odd to some, she proves a perfect match for this material. Adapting the novel by Thomas Savage, Campion is able to craft a complex and emotional drama that never quite goes where you expect it to. Buoyed by luscious visuals and impeccable performances, this is one of the best movies playing at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. Moreover, it may well end up as one of the best films of the year, overall. Believe the hype, folks, as this one has got the goods.

The Power of the Dog is very deliberate, though never anywhere close to boring. What could have been a static Academy Award hopeful that feels like medicine instead is utterly watchable and builds to something stunning. Even as you may know where it’s going, Campion is prepared to pull the rug out from under you.

Netflix

Intense rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a man of his time. Rough and tumble, he’s full of charisma but also anger and hatred. Along with his more kindly and better dressed brother George (Jesse Plemons), they run a successful business. They’re close, but Phil teases George at all times, and it’s clear there’s a stress there. One day in town, Phil turns his propensity for cruelty towards widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Bringing them both to tears, his mocking of the boy thrills his crew, but leads George to begin wooing Rose. A short period of time later, they’re wed. Upset by this change, Phil begins tormenting Rose by humming a tune she’s unable to play on the piano.

Later, Peter comes to stay on the ranch before heading back to medical school. Phil’s mind games have driven Rose to drink, but at an unexpected point, he turns tender towards the boy. Soon, a friendship is brewing. Phil reveals more about his past and his affection for the man who taught him everything he knew. Peter is moved, but also remains suspicious of Phil’s motives. What is happening here? You’ll have to see, of course.

Netflix

Benedict Cumberbatch delivers the performance of his career so far. The quartet are all excellent, with Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee really shining, but Cumberbatch is on a whole other level. Mixing charisma and cruelty, it’s a one of a kind turn that makes perfect use of him. Even his jarring change is handled brilliantly by Cumberbatch. Smit-McPhee is a revelation, especially in some later scenes with Cumberbatch, while Dunst is heartbreaking. Jesse Plemons is excellent too, but his character disappears for a bit. Supporting players here include Keith Carradine, Frances Conroy, Thomasin McKenzie, and more.

Writer/director Jane Campion saw something in The Power of the Dog and really makes the material sing. This may well be her best work to date, give or take how you feel about The Piano. Her script is deft and never stops for you to catch up. Her direction is brilliant. The cinematography and score evoke a specific feeling that you need to see in order to understand. Some have compared this to There Will Be Blood, and it’s a very different film, but it’s a decent starting point for understanding the vibe.

Oscar will likely come calling for this one. A Best Picture nomination seems all but locked in, alongside a Best Actor nomination for Benedict Cumberbatch. After that, a lot just depends on how much voters take it. The more they do, the more likely Kirsten Dunst gets into Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress (depending on category placement) and Jane Campion scores in Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay.

The Power of the Dog packs a punch. Even beyond its across the board awards potential, it’s just compelling cinema. As a filmmaker told me yesterday, it’s cinema with a capital C. They’re right, too. After a successful film festival debut prior to TIFF, it’s headed towards theaters and Netflix later on this year. When it does open, this movie demands to be seen.

SCORE: ★★★1/2

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Written by Joey Magidson

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