Wednesday, January 5, 2022

The Power of the Dog


1925, Montana. Crass cowboy Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) has always had a reputation at the ranch where he works as well as the community he belongs to. His brother George (Jesse Plemons), on the other hand, has always been more reasonable and reserved, ever so patient and putting up with his sibling's rather rash attitude. Once in an excursion out of town, George meets inn owner Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), a depressed widow and single mother to medical student Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). When the two hit it off and decide to get married, Phil becomes even nastier, making his new sister-in-law’s life a living hell at their ranch. He also bullies Peter constantly for his effeminate behavior but warms up to him later as they discover something common between the two of them. As the alpha dog becomes friendlier with the underdog, he loses track of the game. Who will win in this battle of wits?

Powerful, that’s all I can say. It’s an eye-opening case study on toxic masculinity and homosexuality in the 1920’s Midwest because, seriously, where else worse can you be gay other than the 1920’s Midwest? The film is a good showcase of cause and effect, on how homosexuality can transform into homophobia that drives a gay man into the closet, he himself by virtue of defense mechanism becoming a proponent of the very hate he wished were not there, and then redirecting it towards others who would dare defy the norm.

Storyline aside, the performances are topnotch all over. Even Plemons is damn good, but his role is just not the kind of Oscars bait many would pounce on. Cumberbatch carries the film and is probably already a lock for acting nominations. The problem is his field is kind of crowded with great performances this year. He might just lose to Will Smith. Dunst offers strong support as the epitome of a woman in misery, but it is perhaps Smit-McPhee who has the biggest chance of bringing home a supporting actor statuette from the Academy given how he has been sweeping most of the precursors so far, and not without reason.

As for the plot, there are many intense scenes spread out over the film’s two-hour run, mostly perpetuated by Cumberbatch’s character. Assholes are made, not born, which makes you wonder what turned Phil into one. This is a recurring intrigue that keeps you interested because you just want to know what the story behind his attitude is. It is, however, in the subtle power play between Peter and Phil that the storyline gives you something to look forward to. Are they really developing a genuine friendship or is this just their way of outwitting one another? If it’s the latter, who will win? Who should?

Other than those controversial themes of homosexuality, toxic masculinity, and family politics, the film also takes advantage of the sweeping landscape the Midwest has to offer, which gives the film a predominantly orange tint. The monotony such lifestyle in the Midwest entails results in a shift of focus on the characters and the dynamics of their relationship, which is perhaps why the acting is given enough leeway to shine.

Cumberbatch’s bravado is complemented well by Smit-McPhee’s more reserved yet silently sinister attack on his role, with enough intermission from Dunst to balance things out. Now I think I want to watch Campion's The Piano. She seems to have this stellar reputation of letting her actors soar. Remember how Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin both won matching Oscars for that film? Let's see if a Cumberbatch & Smit-McPhee tandem will repeat history.

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