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The Power of the Dog (2021) – Review – A Satisfying and Impressive Film From Director Jane Campion

December 7, 2021

Quick Thoughts – Grade A – The Power of the Dog is an impressive piece of filmmaking that excels on every level. Academy Award winning director Jane Campion (The Piano, Bright Star) has created a fine film that builds towards the most satisfying ending of any 2021 film. The movie will linger in your memory, and hopefully it will be a player when awards time rolls around. 

Adapted from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name, The Power of the Dog is an impressive western that has been carefully crafted by writer/director Jane Campion. What makes The Power of the Dog so impressive is how it subverts western genre tropes, features a unique horror-esque score by Johnny Greenwood, and according to cinematographer Ari Wegner, was filmed like a horror film. The term “slow burn” has been thrown around a lot, and it makes sense, but that implies that nothing much happens until the end, and that can’t be further from the truth. The Power of the Dog is rich with tiny moments that deserve attention, and the clues laid out make it a movie worth rewatching. Campion planned the movie for years, and her dedication to making it layered, humorous, and visually rich have paid off. 

The Power of the Dog focuses on the happenings at a massive ranch in rural Montana, which is home to Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch – who went unbathed and suffered from nicotine poisoning several times during production) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons), two brothers who couldn’t be more different from each other. Phil is the alpha male on the ranch, who is respected by his ranch staff, and feared by everyone else around him. George is a milquetoast individual who seems tired of his overbearing brother, and his life gets better when during a cattle drive, he meets inn owner Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). George quickly proposes marriage to Rose, and she accepts, which causes chaos in the Burbank household as Phil begins to lash out at Rose, which pushes her into a depressed drunken stupor. Things get infinitely more interesting when Peter comes to the ranch during a school break, and finds his mom suffering from depression and his presence mocked by the macho cowboys on the ranch. Phil is initially horrible to the slightly-framed and non-masculine Peter, but he becomes impressed with his confidence and inquisitive nature (there’s a great dolly shot involving Peter walking back and forth from a location that you need to see). So, he takes Peter under his wing, and offers to teach him how to ride horses, and starts making him a rope made from cowhide. It would be a shame to spoil anything more, just know that the rest of the film features scarves, piano playing, cowhides, and rabbit death. 

Overall, The Power of the Dog is a top notch production that features excellent production design from Grant Major, who also designed the sets for King Kong, The Frighteners, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Also, the costume design from Kirsty Cameron (Slow West, Whale RIder), is inspired, as the chaps, button up shirts, and hats, all tell a story, and make the characters standout from each other. The movie also showcases the skills of Ari Wegner, who after In Fabric, Zola, and Lady Macbeth has established herself as a premier cinematographer who is great at creating claustrophobia and dread in Florida hotel rooms and New Zealand valleys. 

Final thoughts: The Power of the Dog is proof that Jane Campion is an A-list director, and hopefully the movie will be a contender during awards time. 

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