There’s no gunfights in Netflix’s largest awards contending release, a western starring Oscar nominee Benedict Cumberbatch as a Montana rancher in the 1920s.
Director Jane Campion’s first film in more than a decade, The Power of the Dog is a subtle, slow-burn character driven drama examining life in the rural hills, what it means to be a man and the things we all too often leave unspoken.
The highly acclaimed film will likely land on any number of “best-of” lists from critics and awards groups this spring, though its languishing melancholy and leisurely pace will likely inhibit casual viewers or traditional fans of the western genre from enjoying Campion’s technically brilliant work.
Based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Savage, The Power of the Dog follows the Burbank brothers, Phil and George, as they run their family’s Montana ranch. Their normal lives change permanently when George marries meek widow Rose and brings her and her socially awkward son Peter to live with them.
Cumberbatch is the antithesis of expectations as Phil, the bullying ranch foreman whose misogyny pervades every inch of the film, endearing him to his workers and reviling him to Rose and Peter. Because he doesn’t have the physicality to domineer over other actors, Cumberbatch terrorizes the screen with his intimidating facial expressions and sharply delivered dialogue done with a menace that oozes out of every frame.
It’s a performance that’s heliocentric to The Power of the Dog with all the other leads basing their work as a reaction to what Cumberbatch brings to the screen as Phil.
Kirsten Dunst’s ability to wonderfully showcase Rose’s increasing isolation and emotional spiral seems reflexive, a complete character haunted and defined by the specter of Cumberbatch’s ominous presence.
Jesse Plemons’s George is largely crafted around his fragile relationship with his brother and the dynamic between Plemons and Cumberbatch teeters on the brink of a confrontation between the brothers that is years in the making but just hasn’t happened yet.
The soft to Cumberbatch’s hard, Plemons approaches George with a light touch as if gently brushing those around him with a feather, which makes Rose and George’s relationship as implausible as possible while still setting the stage for the real emotional weight of the film between Phil and Peter.
Australian actor Kody Smit-McPhee hides much of Peter’s guile behind a wall of fragility that keeps him away from some of Phil’s wrath. While the physicality of his performance has a brittleness as if Peter will crumble under the weight of toxic masculinity, there’s just a gleam of awareness in his eye or the miniscule facial tic that clues audiences in to Peter’s ever moving mind.
Campion’s narrative structure breaks the film into chapters that bounce the audience forward in time as necessary to advance the simplest parts of the story while overlooking those unimportant to Campion’s gaze. The biggest sacrifice in this, unfortunately, is Rose and George’s romance, which is almost exclusively implied and never stated. Their love is set off at a distance and fades considerably after the first 45 minutes.
There is a sense that this makes the film somewhat empty as nearly half the film is dedicated to moments of increasing tension without dialogue, but when the almost silent moments do land, they are incredibly effective.
The most striking thing about The Power of the Dog is the masterful cinematography from Ari Wegner, who relishes in the robust visual tapestry of the New Zealand locations used to mimic Montana and creates arresting moments in wide angle panoramas to help Oscar nominee Jonny Greenwood’s transfixing score to set the emotional tone of the film.
Campion and Wegner actively engage audiences with intriguing camera angles and offsetting vantage points that take a traditional scene and turn it on its head. Regardless of what is happening, there’s always a keen sense of the physical geography that gives audiences a sense of place within the ranch or beyond, most notably when actors are in frame together but at considerable distance.
It seems impossible that The Power of the Dog will not be a major awards season contender, especially in Best Picture, Best Actor for Cumberbatch and Best Director for Campion. The film’s production elements from design to cinematography to score to costuming all feel like certain nominations as well.
Ardent cinephiles will likely become enraptures with the slow, deliberate energy of Campion’s feature while casual viewers won’t be pleased by the tediousness of its melancholy. Luckily, its position as the premier film to debut this month on Netflix makes it worthy of a cinematic flyer for patient audiences.