Trying to maintain an image can be exhausting. In The Power of the Dog though, we see that trying to live up to public expectations can also kill the soul.
Although they have built a successful ranch together, brothers George and Phil Burbank could not be more different. Elder brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) maintains a rough and dirty exterior who consistently praises his masculine mentor, Bronco Bill. Meanwhile, George (Jesse Plemons) is a sensitive soul who wants to be a part of the cultural elite. When George meets Rose (Kirsten Dunst), he is immediately smitten by her. After they wed, he welcomes his new bride and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) back to the ranch. However, as family secrets begin to surface, tensions between Phil, Rose and Peter begin to rise, threatening the family dynamics.
Directed by Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog is a return to form for the director. In her first directorial effort since 2009’s Bright Star, Campion’s latest is a stirring character drama that operates on a slow burn amidst the heat of the desert. Bleaching the screen with pale, warm colours, Campion uses the land to visually display the emotional dryness that her characters are experiencing. Although they live and work in this land, this is a place of death and parchedness of the soul.
Led by a cast that includes Dunst, Smit-McPhee and the always rock-solid Plemons, it should be no surprise that Dog features some great work from everyone involved. However, the most noteworthy performance comes from Cumberbatch who absolutely transforms himself as Phil. Known for his affable charm and smile, Cumberbatch fully leans into the sexually-confused curmudgeon that he plays and offers one of his best and most unique performances. Although Phil maintains a rough exterior, Cumberbatch also manages to break through his beastliness and infuses his character with humility and even fear.
Somewhat unexpectedly, the film takes its title from Psalm 22:20 but the allegory becomes quite appropriate. In this particular Biblical passage, psalmist David is mourning that his life is under constant attack from his enemies. Crying out to God for salvation, he pleads “Deliver me from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog.” There is an anguish and anxiety that pervades this passage that reveals the fear of its author at the hands of his adversaries. As a result, Campion subtly uses this text to establish the sort of inner suffering that her characters experience, especially Phil Burbank.
While the ‘gay cowboy’ trope has admittedly become a cinematic staple since Brokeback Mountain broke down barriers, Power of the Dog is more of an exploration of masculine culture than it is a love story. Set at a time when gender roles were supposed to be clearly defined, Dog speaks to the damage that can be done to the soul when who we really are fails to meet those expectations. In almost every case, the characters within this film have an image that they seek to maintain. George insists on giving the impression that he is of high society. Rose desperately wants to keep people from seeing her alcoholism. Most importantly though, Phil is a brute who desperately seeks to cover up his own homosexuality. Here, every primary character is living some form of lie that prevents them from being who they fully are.
As a result, in an interesting twist, the most powerful character in the film may actually be the one who is perceived to be the weakest. As a young artist who dresses flamboyantly, Peter is looked down upon by the brutish cowboys that work on the ranch. However, he is also the only one who is not trying to hide who he really is. Comfortable in his own skin, Pete dresses how he likes and is willing to stand out of the crowd.
Peter’s self-empowerment draws Phil’s attention with an ire that stems from admiration. In other words, although Phil begins by bullying the young man, its fairly easy to tell that these aggressive acts are merely over-compensation and rooted in his own envy of Peter’s confidence. For his entire life, Phil has admired his idol, Bronco Bill for the power and masculine dominance that he demonstrated. Staring off into the mountains for the proverbial dog, Phil recognizes that his life means more than what others can see yet he seems powerless to experience it. However, in Pete, Phil discovers a wholeness and sense of self that creates a new form of respect in him.
Whereas Phil remains trapped within his own harsh image, Pete is free to be himself.
With heat and affection, Campion’s Power of the Dog is a subversive examination of masculine stereotypes and their toxic effect on the soul. By subverting the tropes of the western genre, she opens a space for conversation surrounding what it means to lean into who you really are, even if it defies expectations of the dominant culture.
The Power of the Dog is available in theatres on Friday, November 17thth, 2021 and will make its debut on Netflix on December 1st, 2021.