“The Power of the Dog” asks the timeless, dramatic question: what was it like to be attracted to the same gender in a world where human sexuality is perceived very differently than it is today? The film immediately presents a brutal, unforgiving world, where any display of femininity or weakness (femininity being synonymous with weakness) is punished violently. Although it has been done before, this circumstance is irresistible for cinematic storytelling. One lingering gaze and you have it — more emotion than any amount of dialogue could convey. The filmmaker says all they need to say in one look: a deeply heteronormative world has made Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) into a bitter shell of a man, completely debilitated from expressing his desires. He finds security in dirt, sweat and the camaraderie of his fellow cowhands. He uses stiflingly toxic masculinity to overcompensate in hiding his identity. He resents his brother (a masterful performance by Jesse Plemons) for being able to lead a normal, healthy and romantic life, and sees his new sister-in-law Rose (Kirsten Dunst) as a threat to both their relationship and property ownership.
The cinematic adaptation of the 1967 novel keeps you in the moment. Backstory is made clear through careful dialogue. Audiences in the 21st century can infer the nature of the relationship between Burbank and the late Bronco Henry. They can also infer that Phil and George’s relationship was stronger in their youth, leading to resentment from Phil when his brother’s marriage becomes more important than their fraternity. “The Power of the Dog” plays on the more subtle end of homoeroticism. Nothing explicit ever happens between Phil and Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The power of psychological cinema lies in what is unsaid, in Burbank bathing in the river, a kind of beauty and gentleness that completely contrasts his characterization up until that point.
The film is a strong contender for Best Original Score and Production Design at the upcoming 2022 Oscars. Johnny Greenwood constructs a masterful composition of sour, discordant strings. They rise with Rose’s anxiety at Phil and Peter’s new kinship. They lay over images of meandering horses, cut from the film’s climax, as viewers are forced to imagine what could be taking place. The setting of rural New Zealand is used in place of the untouched American West. The looming mountains and long cow trails are an imposing force of nature, against which men must develop a hardened sense of masculinity to survive. The land is a character itself, providing Phil the solitude he needs for a moment of tenderness, first by himself, then through a simple and profound connection with Peter. The details of prop, costume and setting transport us to 1920s Montana, and every cut, river bath and gust of dirt is clearly felt.
One controversial choice for this film was, perhaps, the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch. He is a phenomenal actor who delivered a great performance, but that is exactly what we see: Benedict Cumberbatch acting. Maybe we have seen him too often in such a variety of roles, he is now unable to truly conform and be one fresh character in our minds. Maybe it’s his body language and, especially, his manner of speaking. The rural Montana accent is not easy to adopt. The unsuitable casting is highlighted by Cumberbatch and Plemons’ contrasting performance. One brother shifts easily into character, while another feels dropped in straight from London and covered in a fake tan and dirt. Jesse Plemons is a native of Dallas, Texas, and took naturally to the speech patterns of the time and place. Cumberbatch’s accent is intense and unharmonious with those around him. He employed method acting for the film, staying in character throughout production. He carefully considers every movement he makes as an actor. Phil is not considering every single thing he thinks and says, but Cumberbatch clearly is. It’s exactly the kind of performance that earns you an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.
“The Power of the Dog” is a beautiful and profound film that is sure to clinch at least one Oscar, if not for Best Actor.
“The Power of the Dog” is available for streaming on Netflix.