The Power of the Dog

Movie review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
The Power of the Dog Movie Poster Image
Expertly crafted Western drama has violence, cruelty.
  • R
  • 2021
  • 125 minutes

Parents say

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Kids say

age 14+
Based on 3 reviews

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Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.

A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Positive Messages

Overarching message is how dangerous it is to force boys and men into a narrow, alpha-male version of masculinity. Other messages include idea that some people are cruel for sport or pleasure and that people humiliate others out of a sense of insecurity.

Positive Role Models

Few clear role models, but among these flawed characters, most possess some redeeming qualities -- like Rose's selfless love for her son, Peter's protective feelings toward his mother, and George's kindness. Empathy, curiosity, perseverance are demonstrated.

Diverse Representations

Ranch staff includes a Black and Asian background worker, but majority of characters are White, with main characters belonging to upper crust of 1920s Montana ranchers. Negative portrayal of closeted gay man who purposely humiliates a sensitive young man he believes is homosexual (repressed homosexuality manifesting as homophobia). A short scene with Native Americans trying to trade initially shows how the White ranchers mistreat and discriminate against them.

Violence

Dead and injured animals are visible on the ranch. Phil castrates a bull as ranch hands hold it in place on the ground. Audiences see some blood and gore. A character traps a rabbit that he later kills and dissects. A character breaks another rabbit's neck. A character has too much alcohol and passes out, gets sick. A character seriously injures his hand. A character yells and strikes at a horse. A group of ranchers on horseback surround a teen on foot. An adult runs after a teen in anger. A character yells and carries on in anger after receiving news that upsets him. A death by suicide and its aftermath are described.

Sex

Nonsexual full-frontal male nudity when men wash up together in a lake. A couple kiss and embrace and later can be heard (but not seen) making love. Women who are cued as sex workers dance with and kiss ranchers in a tavern. A man touches himself with a bandana. A man recalls how another man saved his life by keeping him warm from the elements with his naked body.

Language

Language said in anger or as an insult includes "fatso," "fat-faced bitch," "cheap schemer," "whore," "little bitch," "damn," "goddamn," "holy hell," "dumb," and homophobic slurs ("f--got," "Nancy").

Consumerism

Steinway baby grand piano.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Adults drink, some to excess (one character is called an alcoholic and often feels sick, gets headaches, or even passes out after drinking in secret), at meals and in taverns. Adults also smoke cigarettes. A teen of unverified age takes sips and drags offered to him.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that The Power of the Dog is writer-director Jane Campion's Western drama set in the 1920s about two wealthy Montana brothers whose relationship is strained when the younger one unexpectedly marries a widow with a sensitive and intelligent teen son. Based on Thomas Savage's 1967 novel, the movie stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Jessie Plemons as Phil and George Burbank, as well as Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee. The story includes violence against both humans and animals. Ranch animals are castrated, pushed, hunted, beaten, and put out of their misery (carcasses are shown), and a character dies (the dead body is visible in a couple of scenes). A death by suicide and its aftermath are discussed. Many adults smoke and drink alcohol, more than one to excess and in secret (to the point of getting sick and passing out), but most during meals and when carousing in taverns. In addition to suggestive scenes in a saloon/brothel, a married couple kiss, go to bed together, and have sex off camera (another character hears them). A man seems to pleasure/caress himself with a bandana. A nonsexual scene of men bathing together has full nudity. Occasional strong language includes "f--got," "s--t," "bitch," "sissy," and more. The story explores how a man represses his sexuality by humiliating a young man he sees as too "soft."

User Reviews

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Teen, 15 years old Written byStagemaster2024 December 30, 2021

A story that needs to be told

I absolutely loved this movie. It was beautiful visually, and story wise. It tells the story of toxic masculinity and it’s toll on others. There was some violen... Continue reading
Teen, 17 years old Written byTheMagnificentJack December 4, 2021

Slow, yet gripping.

Yeah it’s slow, but it’s always engaging and never boring.

What's the story?

Writer-director Jane Campion's THE POWER OF THE DOG, based on Thomas Savage's 1967 novel, follows the story of two wildly different middle-aged brothers running their family's prosperous ranch in 1920s Montana. Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a charismatic cowboy who manages the ranch hands and has a razor-sharp whit and cruel nature. Little brother George (Jessie Plemons) is kind and more refined but also bland and lonely. They still sleep in the room they shared as boys -- until they take a trip to another Montana town, where they meet Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a beautiful young widow and small boardinghouse owner whose teen son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), is a sensitive social outcast. Phil maliciously bullies Peter, and the situation gets worse when George unexpectedly marries Rose and brings her home to the family ranch. Phil humiliates and ridicules Rose and refers to Peter as "Miss Nancy." Once Peter joins them at the ranch during a boarding school break, the dynamic shifts to another gear in psychological terror and manipulation.

Is it any good?

Campion's masterfully crafted and acted historical drama explores both the myth of the American dream and toxic masculinity and elevates the work of a Western author who deserves posthumous praise. After taking a feature film directing break since 2009's Bright Star, the Oscar-winning director (the first woman director to receive the Palme d'Or) returns with a literary tale that exposes hard truths about loneliness, isolation, and repression. With her gifted cast and crew, Campion immerses audiences in the American West of the 1920s and provides a fascinating character study of four individuals as solitary and unknowable as the Big Sky landscape. Cumberbatch initially seems miscast as a macho cowboy, but as the movie progresses, Phil's layers make it clear why the actor was chosen for the role. Cumberbatch ultimately gives one the best performances of his career as Phil, a man so chilling and brutally savage that scenes with him take on a tense sense of psychological horror. Dunst is fabulous as grieving and self-medicating Rose, and her on- and off-screen partner, Plemons, provides a caring foil to his brother's ruthlessness.

As easy as it would be to focus on Cumberbatch, kudos are also owed to 25-year-old Aussie actor Smit-McPhee, who's excellent as even-smarter-than-he-seems Peter. The strength of the acting ensemble is bolstered by the outstanding technical crew. Australian cinematographer Ari Wegner captures the gorgeous mountain landscape (even though the film was shot in New Zealand, not Montana), and composer Jonny Greenwood's score ratchets up the story's tension and emotional suspense. The costumes are also worth mentioning, with Kirsty Cameron paying lots of detail to class (noticeable as Rose goes from working widow to well-heeled wife) and textiles in a way that makes the large fur coats, shiny belt buckles, well-worn denim, and beaded Indigenous gloves part of the story. If Campion's adaptation loosely reminds viewers of the themes of Brokeback Mountain, it should be noted that Brokeback's author, Annie Proulx, was influenced by Thomas Savage's work. The movie's writing and pacing, like the scenery, are slow and languorous, but the build-up makes the final act all the more riveting.

 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about substance use and violence in The Power of the Dog. How are those issues necessary to the story?

  • How does the movie address sexuality? In what ways does sexual repression manifest itself in both brothers? What motivates each brother's choices throughout the film?

  • Discuss the story's theme of masculinity in the 1920s. How is that theme still relevant today? What role does historical context play in the portrayal of homophobia? Why does Phil ridicule Peter?

  • Which characters display empathy? How about curiosity and perseverance? Why are those important character strengths?  

  • Does watching the movie make you want to read the book? For those familiar with Brokeback Mountain, talk about the thematic similarities to that adaptation. 

Movie details

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