In Review

Film review: The Power of the Dog

A searing western from the director of The Piano

The Power of the Dog could just as well be called The Power of Benedict Cumberbatch, said Deborah Ross in The Spectator, as he is so “spectacular” in this “wonderfully complex” western. The Sherlock actor plays a “ruggedly masculine cowboy” named Phil who runs a cattle ranch with his brother George (Jesse Plemons) in 1920s Montana. The pair are opposites: Phil is “clever, but mean-spirited and cruel”, and so macho he can castrate a bull with his bare hands; while George is “slower, softer, kinder, stockier”.

Their equilibrium is upset by the arrival in their lives of Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widow who marries George. When she comes to live at the ranch with her delicate teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Phil immediately resolves to make their lives “hell”. It’s been said the film is about toxic masculinity – but it is more than that: it explores “the pain of anyone who is expected to be a certain way, and conforms at the expense of their true identity”. Phil, a man who knows he will never be loved, is revealed to be as tragic as he is brutal. 

Director Jane Campion has produced an “indecently powerful” film, said Kevin Maher in The Times, in which not a line of dialogue is wasted; and while Cumberbatch is “mesmerising”, he’s not acting in a vacuum – Dunst too is “formidable”. Campion won an Oscar in 1994 for her “very different frontier romance”, The Piano, said Danny Leigh in the FT; her new film was also shot in her native New Zealand – which doesn’t quite work (your mind may wander to The Lord of the Rings). Still, with “a sure touch and epic sweep”, she has created a film “loaded with menace but something rarer too: unpredictability”. This is “potent cinema” that glints “like a new knife”.

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