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TIFF Review: ‘The Power of the Dog’ is an Intimate, Character-Driven Drama Set Against a Vast, Western Backdrop

November 12, 2021Ben MK

From England's most famous sleuth to an intergalactic terrorist and the Marvel Cinematic Universe's Sorcerer Supreme, Benedict Cumberbatch has played it all, even lending his recognizable voice to a gold-obsessed dragon with a massive grudge against the denizens of Middle Earth and a wingspan to match. Now, in Jane Campion's Western drama, The Power of the Dog, the versatile British actor is taking on what may be his most challenging and complex role yet, starring opposite Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons as a bigoted rancher whose gruff exterior belies a secret shame he's unwilling to confront.

The time and place is 1925 Montana, and brothers Phil and George Burbank (Cumberbatch and Plemons) are ranchers who have been fortunate enough to be able to make a decent living off a land that can be as unforgiving as it can be plentiful. But when the kindhearted George marries an alcoholic, cash-strapped widow named Rose Gordon (Dunst), it signals the beginning of a change in the siblings' relationship. Wary of Rose's true intentions and even more suspicious of her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a gay teenager with a penchant for crafting paper flowers and dissecting dead animals, Phil sets out to make Rose feel as unwelcome as possible, never foregoing an opportunity to push her to the brink of emotional breakdown. Yet, despite his misgivings towards his brother's new family, Phil eventually warms to Peter. However, will his attempts to mentor Rose's son in the ways of the land be enough to earn him his redemption? Or is Phil's heart already hardened beyond the point of saving?

Based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, the result is a complicated tale about brotherhood, regret and forgiveness, where external hardships are equally matched by internal, emotional suffering. On a more mainstream level, though, The Power of the Dog is quite simply an acting showcase for its principal cast, especially Cumberbatch, who once again proves that his affinity for big budget blockbusters and Hollywood roles hasn't diminished his talent for intimate and nuanced character-driven drama.

The Power of the Dog screened under the Special Presentations programme at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival and is in select theaters November 17th and on Netflix December 1st. Its runtime is 2 hrs. 7 min.

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