The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog ★★★★★

A patient slow-burn that requires its audience to dig deeper than what is shown on the surface. The first half of the movie had me utterly lost with respect to the characters' motivations and the reasoning behind everyone's actions, but Jane Campion's persistent, evocative directorial style kept my interest hooked despite my initial troubles with the story. The first viewing left me with a desperate urge to rewatch this film in order to understand its characters more properly, and so I ended up seeing it again twice over the course of the next two days.

After three viewings, I now have no trouble calling this a masterpiece, because all the small details only truly fall into place once you have understood more of the story. And that is the big issue here, because most viewers (understandably) won't have the patience to dissect this film from beginning to end, and breaking through the surface poses a difficult task. When I first saw it, my initial reaction was one of confusion and befuddlement, but let me just say that this one is worth thinking about, and looking at more profoundly.

What Jane Campion does with The Power of the Dog is a modern contextualization of old-fashioned values and power dynamics. The genre of the western has been in decay for more than fifty years already, so any works associated with the genre are immediately regarded in the context of its ever-evolving surroundings. Just like the genre itself, the characters of The Power of the Dog have to embrace change and deal with the uncertainty of their situations, since adaption is the only way to react to progress. And so, the bitterness of the dying Old West, the harsh conditions of the Western frontier, the clashing of values and close-minded beliefs are framed as a bleak, yet ultimately hopeful transition into an uncertain future.

It is only fitting that Campion's film also highlights issues and subjects that would have been too delicate for any work of its genre several decades ago, with subtle expressions of gender and sexuality deliberately merged into the story of a society that is determined by its own power hierarchies. Benedict Cumberbatch's performance appears easy to discredit as the overacted depiction of a sadistic nihilist, but the depths of his portrayal frame an affecting character study that reflects the effects of power and disdain for what he considers weakness on the individual. Outside of Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Kirsten Dunst all are given their moments to shine as well.

The chilling Jonny Greenwood score as well as Ari Wegner's cinematography that makes each frame look like a painting provide the final straws to make this a masterwork worthy of your attention. It will almost certainly not be for everyone, as the high acclaim will set infinite expectations for many viewers that Campion's slow pace will have difficulties to satisfy. Yet, Campion provides some fascinating groundwork that invites the viewer on a chilling odyssey; after my own troubles with getting into this story, I think the impact of Campion's direction has really affected my, and I am already starting to watch this for the fourth time right now.

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