Venice Film Festival 2021: The Power of the Dog

Jane Campion returns after 12 years with The Power of the Dog, a haunting study of male violence that makes up for its lack of emotional depth with forensic storytelling

Film Review by Anahit Behrooz | 03 Sep 2021
  • The Power of the Dog
Film title: The Power of the Dog
Director: Jane Campion
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie

On the sun- and wheat-soaked slopes of pre-Depression Montana, a rancher treats his family with abominable, petty cruelty. Thus is set the stage for director Jane Campion’s first feature in 12 years; a meticulously engineered exercise in tension that locates claustrophobia within wide-open plains, and calculation within primal desire. Tracing the shifts in power that occur after George (Jesse Plemons) – the kinder brother of the sadistic Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) – marries Kirsten Dunst’s young widow and brings her and her son to the family ranch, The Power of the Dog has garnered much attention as Campion’s first male-centred work. Yet in this desolate land, power is a commodity not easily surrendered, and exactly who is in charge remains a slippery, elusive question long after the credits have rolled.

As a study of masculinity, The Power of the Dog covers well-trodden ground: that male repression engenders male violence; that instincts for domination are born out of a thousand pathetic insecurities. Where Campion excels, however, is less in her psychological investigation of Phil’s sadism but in its tightly-wound orchestration. Cumberbatch prowls the house with a chilling, mocking tread worthy of Daphne Du Maurier’s most twisted villains, yet his viciously acquired power is no guarantee of triumph. Loom he might – high in the frame and spectre-like in its background – but, like all of us, Phil is at the mercy of others and narrative dominance does not always equal an upper hand.

It might want for the gutting specificity that made her previous works such as The Piano and In the Cut so knowing, but what Campion’s long-anticipated return lacks in emotional depth, it makes up for in forensic storytelling. A haunting evisceration of the illusion of control, The Power of the Dog is as savage as the arid Montana desert its characters inhabit, and confirms Campion as one of our most precise and deceptively brutal filmmakers.

The Power of the Dog had its world premiere at Venice Film Festival, and will screen at London Film Festival on 11 Oct
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