The Power of the Dog features gorgeously shot cinematography and splendid performances in Jane Campion’s 1925-set Western.
I cannot say enough good things about the film. The acting is top-notch. Benedict Cumberbatch delivers what may very well be the best performance of his career. Kirsten Dunst isn’t too bad herself! However, it’s Kodi Smit-McPhee coming through as the film’s surprise MVP. At first, Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Peter Gordon (Kodi Smit-McPhee) don’t get along. But later, they come to bond with each other to where you think there’s something between them. Peter Sciberras is good at his job because anytime you think something will happen between them, the film cuts away from the action.
By the time this review runs, it’ll be about a week and a half since I viewed it on the Netflix lot. In addition to the acting, the one thing that I cannot stop thinking about is Ari Wegner’s gorgeous cinematography. Listen, women are rarely nominated for Best Cinematography at the Oscars. I really feel that this is the year that a woman will win. Whether that’s Ari Wegner or someone else, I don’t know. Even considering how New Zealand stands in for Montana, I still can’t stop thinking about the gorgeous scenery. Of course, visual effects plays a hand in some of this but this goes without saying.
The gist of the film is that the aforementioned Phil Burbank is not a nice guy. Put it this way, Benedict Cumberbatch told Critics Choice members that he had to learn how to be an asshole for the film. The real Cumberbatch is as far away from Phil Burbank as it gets. Phil and his brother, George (Jesse Plemons), are ranchers. George is the only person capable of standing up to Phil. Phil’s behavior at the Red Mill restaurant makes both Peter and Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) cry. Of course, George befriends Rose and ends up marrying her much to Phil’s dismay. Rose just happens to be Peter’s mom. You see where all of this is going?
Eventually, Phil comes to take Peter under his wing and teach him how to build a rope and ride a horse. Phil was once mentored by Bronco Henry, who died some time before. Is Phil the Bronco Henry to Peter? That’s the thing about The Power of the Dog–with how the movie is edited, we can only assume. We can only assume that Phil is gay and makes up for it with his toxic masculinity. The homophobia is certainly on display for all to see. But again, Phil is living in 1925! Put everything together and it ultimately results in a wholly complex character.
The dog in the title does not refer to an actual dog in the film. No, it refers to a rock formation in Montana. In any event, the filmmakers recreate it through the beauty of visual effects. But beyond the visuals, there’s a lot to admire about the film. The sets are impressively built from scratch and are reminiscent of President Theodore Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill home in New York, which was built on the Hope Hill Farm.
One thing to note about the title is that it comes from Psalms 22:21 (press notes say 22:20 but Jewish texts say otherwise):
הַצִּ֣ילָה מֵחֶ֣רֶב נַפְשִׁ֑י מִיַּד־כֶּ֝֗לֶב יְחִידָתִֽי
In no surprise, there are multiple translations even within various Jewish texts. According to Chabad, it should be grip not power as the verse states: “Save my soul from the sword, my only one from the grip of the dog.” Sefaria features the following translation from Tanakh: The Holy Scriptures, published by JPS: “Save my life from the sword, my precious life from the clutches of a dog.” Megillah 15b:8 uses hand instead of grip. Interestingly enough, The Holy Scriptures: A New Translation (JPS 1917) features the following translation: “Deliver my soul from the sword; mine only one from the power of the dog.” Google translate the Hebrew text as “Saved from the sword of my soul at once – a single dog.” Factor in the fact that the Thomas Savage book was published in 1967 and it makes sense to use a definition closer to 1917.
Only seven women have been nominated as Best Director. Jane Campion is one of them. She could very well receive another nomination for this film.
DIRECTOR/SCREENWRITER: Jane Campion
CAST: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie, Peter Carroll, Adam Beach, with Keith Carradine and Frances Conroy
Netflix releases The Power of the Dog in theaters on November 17 and streaming on December 1, 2021.
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