TORONTO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL 2021 REVIEW! The attraction for many viewers of The Power of the Dog may be the prospect of seeing Benedict Cumberbatch as another lovable a*****e — this time in cowboy form! But what director Jane Campion actually delivers is an anti-western as a searing takedown of toxic masculinity.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons play Phil and George Burbank, a pair of ranchers in 1925 Montana. Plemons’ George is kind-hearted and easy-going, but we get the sense that he’s fed up with his rough, caustic, domineering brother Phil. When the duo and their band of cowboys stop at an inn on one of their cattle drives, things take a turn when Phil relentlessly mocks the young waiter Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) for being too effeminate. This drives Peter’s mother, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), who runs the restaurant, to tears. George tries to comfort her, which in short order leads to marriage. Rose moves into the brothers’ estate, while Peter goes off to medical school. The savage brother Phil constantly torments Rose, driving her to drink, which only devalues her farther in Phil’s eyes. But when Peter comes back to visit, Phil has a surprising change of heart towards him and takes the boy under his wing.
“The savage brother Phil constantly torments Rose, driving her to drink, which only devalues her…”
You may think you can map out the rest of The Power of the Dog from there, but rest assured, there are plenty of surprises I won’t spoil. This is an anti-Western, but not quite in a way we’ve seen before. For a start, it isn’t entirely male-focused. To be honest, Kirsten Dunst’s Rose is the weakest of the characters — she’s largely a foil to Cumberbatch’s dominant Phil. After the film, I got into a long discussion with a friend about who the protagonist and antagonist were. We couldn’t agree because the film departs so thoroughly from narrative convention while at the same time coming to a satisfying and artistically relevant conclusion.
I’m delighted to see Dunst trying to extend her range into slightly older characters, and she has the bravery to look realistically put-upon and weary here. Still, her performance is the weakest in a strong cast. Plemons is good, as always, though he disappears in the middle of the film so doesn’t have a huge amount to do. Cumberbatch gives a strong performance as a not-so-lovable a*****e, but he’s just such a familiar face that I never quite bought into him as a cowboy. Here, the real shining star is Kodi Smit-McPhee as the lanky, seemingly delicate Peter. He’s outstanding as a fish out of water and a kid that has to adapt to survive in a place hostile to his sensibilities.
"…this is an anti-Western, but not quite in a way we’ve seen before."