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The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog

Synopsis:
Charismatic rancher Phil Burbank inspires fear and awe in those around him. When his brother brings home a new wife and her son, Phil torments them until he finds himself exposed to the possibility of love.
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A coldhearted rancher has an antagonistic relationship with his brother's new wife and her son in . Phil Burbank () is a cowboy in 1925 Montana, who owns a ranch with his brother George (). While on the range, the brothers stop for dinner at an establishment run by widow Rose Gordon (), who is brought to tears at the cruel behaviour of Phil towards her and Rose's teenage son Peter (). However, George ends up taking pity on Rose and even goes on to marry her. Phil's cruelty towards Rose continues, resulting in her taking up drinking, but she becomes more disturbed when Phil unexpectedly takes Peter under his wing.

The Power of the Dog is a Western drama written and directed by Jane Campion (The Piano), based on the novel by Thomas Savage. The story of the film, told in five chapters, focuses on Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank, a rancher unashamed of his filth and cruel behaviour. Phil makes life difficult for his brother George's new wife Rose, repeatedly tormenting her with a tune she used to enjoy playing on the piano. However, Rose's son Peter comes home from school for the summer, Phil unexpectedly begins to warm up to the boy, which results in Rose getting close to the edge.

It can be said that The Power of the Dog is just as much a character study as it is a Western. Phil Burbank is shown as a man who covers himself in mud before swimming and doesn't think twice before castrating cattle in the middle of the range. When Phil and George's parents (Peter Carroll and Frances Conroy) arrive for dinner with the Governor (Keith Carradine), Phil refuses to bathe and join the group for dinner, but he still can't help but embarrass Rose when she is unable to play the piano tune she has been practicing.

The layers of Phil's gruff and cruel exterior begin to peel away when Rose's son Peter finds out that Phil is possibly a closeted homosexual. While initially responding to Peter's nosiness with anger, Phil instead ends up taking Peter under his wing, in a similar fashion to Phil's oft-cited mentor Bronco Henry. I won't discuss this element of the film much further, but I will say that this subplot begins appearing like it is going in one direction before it takes a sudden and unexpected turn.

Benedict Cumberbatch shines in the lead performance of Phil Burbank, who is such a coldhearted person for much of the film, though he is a character who is always compelling to watch. Phil is very much the embodiment of the typical cowboy, which made the layers of his character all the more fascinating. As Phil's main foil throughout the film, Kirsten Dunst plays Rose as someone on the brink of a total breakdown, who has resorted to keeping bottles of alcohol around the house. Kodi Smit-McPhee (Slow West) as Peter plays a small but important role in the overall story, while Jesse Plemons as Geroge gets to play the nice guy opposite Phil's cruelty.

While The Power of the Dog is not a typical Western film, it does end up being a highly compelling character study about a cruel cowboy, who is more than what he seems.

The Power of the Dog opens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on Wednesday, November 17, 2021 and will be available on Netflix on December 1, 2021


Trailer for The Power of the Dog

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Sean Patrick Kelly
Sean Patrick Kelly
Sean Patrick Kelly is a freelance film critic and blogger based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
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