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The Power of the Dog

Jane Campion’s new film THE POWER OF THE DOG has been on many Top Ten lists for 2021 and is on the short list for Best Picture of the Year. After all the appreciative opinions I’d read about it and knowing it stars one of my favorite actors Benedict Cumberbatch, I was anticipating a great film.

Cumberbatch is undeniably good as 1920’s Montana cattle rancher Phil Burbank. He rules with fear and seems to inspire great loyalty in his team. He’s the opposite of his brother George, very well played by Jesse Plemons (TV’s “Fargo”, The Irishman).

George has social climbing aspirations and is the much kinder Burbank brother. When he meets the quiet owner of the Red Mill Inn, Rose (Kirstin Dunst) he is instantly attracted to her. He is the only one to comfort Rose when Phil taunts her effeminate teenage son Peter. Peter is tormented by Phil’s comments and does his best to avoid him.

When George and Rose marry, Phil is suddenly Peter’s uncle.

The dynamics of the new family are difficult, with Phil the well-read but not socially acceptable vulture circling the three. His barbs are soon aimed at Rose, taking every possible opportunity to wound her mentally. He’s good at it and seems to relish everything he inflicts on her.

When Phil seems to soften his attitude toward Peter and take him under his dusty wing, you’re left wondering what Phil’s actual motives are.

True feelings run far below the surface, and you soon discover that while their exteriors may be very different, Peter and Phil both have an edge that cuts deep.

Kodi Smit-McPhee has grown up in the movies with films like “Let Me In” and “The Road” and he was Nightcrawler in “XMen Apocalypse”. He’s a hell of an actor and goes toe-to-toe with Cumberbatch in intensity.

The entire cast is good.

I am normally drawn to this type of film. Some of my favorites circle around characters that have very few redeeming qualities. Cumberbatch’s Phil Burbank sometimes reminded me of Daniel Day Lewis’s Daniel Plainview in “There Will Be Blood”. It also seems to share DNA with Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Phantom Thread”, but for me, this film pales in comparison. Both of those works pulled me in from their opening scenes and never released their grip.

Beyond some terrific cinematography of New Zealand landscapes and an appreciation for the actors, THE POWER OF THE DOG left me cold.

I was never a fan of Campion’s most famous film, “The Piano” so I guess I’m just not buying what she’s selling.


POWER OF THE DOG gets a disappointing C.

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