Netflix might have the Best Picture of 2021 on its hands with writer/director Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, a slow-burn study of machismo and vengeance in the old West. Benedict Cumberbatch is the last actor I would have thought of as the bullying/charismatic cowpoke, Phil Burbank. Nobody is willing to challenge Burbank as he makes life miserable for his brother, brother’s new wife and his wife’s gentle and awkward grown son. But, the actor once again proves himself as a master craftsman and has us on edge from beginning to end.
Not everyone will have the patience for this film. Campion takes her time in meticulous character study and there is certainly a method to her madness. She provides echoes of the great director John Ford as she guides Ari Wegner’s lens to capture the vastness of 1925 Montana.
Campion also builds tension between Phil Burbank and anybody that crosses him, even unintentionally. At any moment graphic violence could easily happen if it was in any other director’s hands. But, rather than deliver explosives, gunfire or fists fights, the writer/director chooses to slowly gnaw on our nerves waiting for the inevitable only to drop a huge quiet bomb on us we never expected.
Campion is an absolute artist with her canvas. She and her production team have recreated the period and the actors are truly living it. Kirsten Dunst as Rose Gordon is heartbreaking to watch. She’s fragile, beaten down and even tormented yet we see her try so hard to gather strength for her quiet son, wonderfully underplayed by Kodi Smit-McPhee, who also appears to be just as fragile. He also happens to carefully conceal the morbidity that resides in him. Phil Burbank has nothing but disdain for the both of them the moment his brother shows interest in settling down.
Now, let’s talk about Jesse Plemons as Phil’s brother, George. Plemons has acted with the best of them and proved to hold his own from Meryl Streep to Robert De Niro. He’s displayed his acting abilities in such high profile projects like Breaking Bad, for which he received two nominations for Outstanding Performance, and won one from the Screen Actors Guild, and both Fargo and USS Callister, both of which found him nominated for an Emmy. Plemons is pure magic in the role of George Burbank. He is the complete opposite of his brother, Phil; a quiet caretaker. He’s also a protector of both his new wife and his brother which makes a hell of a juggling act.
The brothers come from a wealthy ranching family yet they’ve for years herded cattle and tamed horses for a living. Although Phil is the more educated and charismatic, it will be George that will inherit the family ranch. Phil does not seem to have a problem with that and he trusts George to do the right thing. That is until while herding a group of cattle George happens to meet widow Rose Gordon. He is immediately taken by her and Phil has his suspicions.
Phil is sure his brother is an easy mark and that this troubled widow and her weird son will latch onto his brother for the money. But, Phil will see to it that his brother is not so easily taken. As time goes on, we recognize Rose’s delicate condition and that she truly loves George.
Unfortunately, Phil makes life so unreasonable, Rose turns to secretly drinking and it only becomes worse when George leaves town for business. Phil also makes a turnabout with Peter, Rose’s son. He goes from mistreating Peter to taking him under his wing. But, Rose does not trust him, feeling that Phil has ulterior motives. Watching Phil and Peter together is gripping since we have no idea what Phil is capable of and the trusting young Peter Gordon appears to be no match for the rough-and-tumble cowboy.
The Power of the Dog is a tour de force of acting between the four principles and the place they live in using the backdrop of Montana as a cold and uncompromising setting. Campion has delivered a movie that beautifully captures love, jealousy, grief, vengeance, sexuality and resentment. Here is a superior psychological thriller with a western setting which is a rarity in American filmmaking. This film deserves all the accolades it has been showered with and those who have the patience and put down their cell phones, iPads and laptops allowing the attention Campion’s story demands will be in for a real treat.
The Power of the Dog is playing in selected theaters and currently on Netflix.
Visit Ray’s blog at themonsterinmyhead.com.
Directed by: Jane Campion
Release Date: December 1, 2021
Run Time: 126 Minutes
Country: United Kingdom/Canada/Australia/New Zealand