The Power of the Dog (dir. Jane Campion, 2021) – Rancher Phil Burbank takes an instant dislike to his brother’s new wife and begins a game of torment.
Violence isn’t always marked by obvious thick scars or deep purple bruises. Based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name, The Power of the Dog spins a tight yarn of anxiety on the lesser seen side of dysfunctional family dynamics, built on emotional abuse that is often much more imperceptible.
Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the charismatic but cruel menace, who thrives on control and dominance over everyone around him. He spits poison in every word, belittling his brother George (Jesse Plemons) in private and in the presence of his crew. The only bit of affection left in him is reserved for Bronco Henry, a man who has long passed and had taught him all that he knew.
The rest would be lucky to dodge a drop of his venom. When George meets and romances widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst), Phil takes every opportunity to humiliate the latter and her son Peter (Kodi Smith-McPhee) out of ostensible jealousy. The worst occurs behind closed doors in whispered tones. Rose soon crumbles into a breakdown, her alcoholism becoming a crime while he remains blameless.
It is a troubling portrait of toxic machismo that powerfully shows how the silent form of aggression isn’t always recognised until the damage has been done. Never once does Phil acts out physically, but his endless mental torment hurts others just as much, or worse. An excellent ensemble cast makes each moment feel real and gut-wrenching.
Yet there is no easy way to draw a clear line between villain and victim as we quickly learn that Phil himself seems to be enacting his own cycle of abuse. His caustic relationship with Peter appears to stem from a much deeper insecurity that explains, but does not excuse his behaviour. Every reveal of their motivations, known or otherwise to themselves, layers the affecting story with thought-provoking complexity.
The slow burn never once feels like a grind under Jane Campion’s direction. Rather, the emotional impact comes through strong due to her perfect control and pacing. The heightening intensity makes the difficult journey a compelling watch as Rose and Peter spiral into their breaking point, delivering a striking finale in this cautionary tale, beautifully translated to screen.
An emotionally impactful psychological drama about the cycle of abuse, The Power of the Dog is made especially memorable by its stellar casting and direction.
The Power of the Dog is now on Netflix.