The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog ★★★★½

Keep hearing from people who have read the book that this is the rare example of a film exceeding its source material, which I find interesting as perhaps my one complaint (not really a complaint) is that I wish the film had more time to develop the characters and their arcs.

As it stands, it feels like a film split into three distinct sections. The first is the George and Rose courtship, an achingly beautiful romance consisting of two people in miserable circumstances finding a solace in one another. Life can be found even in despair, in a world of oppressive cruelty handed down by a miserable man whose closeted self-hatred becomes lashed out when he sees his "inferior" brother getting to have the one thing he never can—love. Plemons is phenomenal in this, one of the few actors working today strong enough to convey the dimensions of this character so astutely that you not only get an understanding of him in this opening act, but you also feel like you learn more about him as the film goes on, despite him disappearing for most of the rest of it.

That's the catalyst for the second section of the film, which is Rose's descent. As beautiful as the first section is, the second is absolutely unbearable to watch in the most effective way thanks to Campion. Her use of camerawork, the way she pushes the buttons on the senses, and the performances from Cumberbatch and Dunst are incredible. That 'emotional torture by banjo' scene is one of the most haunting of the year, and in virtually any other director's hands it would have been a dud.

It's in this section that we see how George's love for Rose feels, in a way, selfish. He genuinely believes he loves her, no doubt, but he knowingly brings her into a house of horror and then abandons her to Phil's whims. Campion's ever-evolving examinations on toxic masculinity and the ways in which women are forced to operate under the thumb of the patriarchy find so many layers through the depictions of all of the men in this, with Rose at the center baring the brunt of it all. Dunst is more than up to the task to carry this responsibility as a performer, giving one of the finest performances of his career.

The third, and final section, brings into focus both Phil and Peter, a dynamic that has been seeded throughout the film in a way that allows it to believably come to the fore in this final stretch. If Campion hadn't laid those pieces so well, this could have been a jarring shift in focus, as I was honestly surprised how little Cumberbatch was in the film for the first hour at least. But she's a master of her craft, and nothing about this storytelling feels unearned. Everything is so well-calibrated, to the point that the sickening end of one character's arc feels inevitable, while the hopeful end for others feels tainted with an acidic air despite the promise of a better future.

Certainly a movie to sit on and let wash over you, one to ruminate with and give several viewings to. Looking forward to another watch. I'm writing this five or so days after I watched it, and it's only grown in my estimation since that viewing. I can imagine it will continue to do so with repeated viewings.

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