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The Power of the Dog is the latest — and long-awaited — western drama from New Zealand director and screenwriter Jane Campion, who famously comes out with her films at a strikingly slow clip, so when she has a new project on the horizon, it’s quite important to pay attention. She was the second woman ever nominated for Best Director at the Oscars. She’s the first female director to ever receive the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Of course, these accolades were for probably who most well-known film to the broader public, The Piano from 1993.
Her new film, The Power of the Dog, which is based on Thomas Savage’s eponymous book, also boasts a tremendous cast. It stars the one and only Benedict Cumberbatch as a cattle driver named Phil Burbank, who owns a ranch with his brother, George, played by the quietly strong Jesse Plemons. Right away, their dynamic is clearly written, as Phil happens to be a miserable, grumpy, middle-aged man in which nothing pleases or satisfies him. He mocks his brother relentlessly for his weight and more reserved personality, but it all seems to roll over George’s back because we get the sense this treatment is nothing new, and George has long learned to endure his brother’s “all bark no bite” personality.
The story takes place in 1925 Montana, as George falls in with a widow named Rose, played by Kirsten Dunst in a role easily comparable to her understated performance in The Beguiled, and yes, I remember that Plemons and Dunst are married in real life, how charming. Rose has a son named Peter, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, who you might recognize from his role as Nightcrawler in the recent X-Men movies, as well as The Road and Let Me In.
At first glance, Peter is essentially the polar opposite of Phil. He’s kind-hearted, sensitive, and artistic, while Phil presents himself as a man’s man who learned it all from his mentor, Bronco Henry, whom he’s constantly going on about. This collision of personalities is the crux of the story as Rose and Peter have to live with not just George, but also the far less agreeable Phil, who makes a habit of raising tension out of sheer dislike he appears to have for other people.
First, The Power of the Dog is undoubtedly an unconventional western. Yes, it has the fundamentals gripped tightly: the sweeping frontier vistas, a slow burn cinematography approach by Ari Wegner, and a folk-heavy composition by Jonny Greenwood, who’s having his own amazing 2021. But usually, we see atmospheric elements like this add up to a western more similar to films like True Grit, or Hostiles, or last year’s News of the World, or Netflix’s other 2021 western, The Harder They Fall. These films similarly present frontier life as a miserable experience, where a hard-fought life is difficult, dirty, and dangerous. But these themes all come about through sheer violence—gunfights, fistfights, fights of any kind, really.
But the real power behind The Power of the Dog is in how the absence of violence is just as threatening as violence itself. And we can more reasonably understand how a repressed and certainly toxic man can abuse others psychologically, and for reasons that have cohesion and narrative importance. To the point where you worry more about the long-term effects of emotional trauma than immediate blunt-force trauma. It’s fitting, then, that the film takes place just a few years before the Great Depression, so contextually you can imagine how much worse life can really be for these people before long.
The film is terrific at telling a traditional story about aggression without showing traditional aggression. At first, it’s a bit odd and disorienting because it’s easy to expect and anticipate many terrible things to happen that end up not happening—but then something worse happens even though you can’t quite put your finger on the nature of the tension, the mere threat of possible danger simmering underneath what’s seen. It’s a grounded western film, essentially, and what else should we expect from Campion at this stage in her career? You could almost call this a “bad” western that is yet a fantastic film.
The Power of the Dog succeeds in its slow and steady approach because every character pulls off their role with full commitment. Cumberbatch will rightfully get heaps of praise for being so against-type here as someone truly, uncompromisingly, unlikable, yet he’s the engine behind what makes this plot move at all. And peeling back his complexities ends up revealing diamonds this film subtly has to offer. Similarly, Smit-McPhee has to hold his own against several powerhouse actors, here, and he has, arguably, two of the most important scenes in the entire picture. They hinge on his expressive performance, not really dialogue, and if he had played it too overt or too subtle, the ending would be jello.
Instead, The Power of the Dog is closer in quality and function to Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, a superior film overall but not by all that much. Unfortunately, it does have the problem that isn’t a true problem, which is that it frankly lacks broad, commercial appeal and has the audacity to require patience from the viewer. Fortunately, Campion makes movies without giving that sort of backwash mind, and it’s great to see Netflix putting real money behind films like this, so those who are hungry for artistic endeavors at this faraway level can get their rope around this one.
The Power of the Dog is now available to watch in select theaters, or you can stream it right now on Netflix.
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