'The Power of the Dog' Is the Film That Could Win Netflix Its First Best Picture Oscar
Jane Campion's dissection of the American West is a triumph.
The mythology of the American West is laden with images of masculinity. From John Wayne to Clint Eastwood, it's a world where the clanking of spurs and leather conjures up a male ideal of tough, heterosexual heroism. On the surface, Phil Burbank, played by Benedict Cumberbatch in Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog—which was released in theaters November 17 before making its way to Netflix December 1—would look like that kind of man. He's unbathed and unrepentant. He calls his brother George (Jesse Plemons) "fatso." He worships his departed mentor, a man named Bronco Henry, like a god.
Phil Burbank is a man who constructed his own mythology, one which comes tumbling down over the course of Campion's masterful film, based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage. It's an epic about the way the male id can crush everyone it touches, anchored by a brilliant masquerade of a performance by Cumberbatch, his best yet.
Phil and George have been running their wealthy parents' ranch for 25 years when the story begins in 1925 Montana. They ride into the small town where Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), a widow, runs the local inn with help from her delicate and meticulous son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who recreates flowers from his mother's garden using paper. His fake buds are so lovely that Rose puts them out as decoration on the dinner table, where they are immediately the subject of ire from Phil. He targets Peter for his effeminacy, leaving Rose crying at the end of the night. Whereas Phil believes he was delivering hard and necessary truths, George stays behind to comfort Rose.
It's just a short while later that George brings Rose back to the ranch as his bride, and Phil begins to insidiously and methodically torture Rose, getting under her skin as she caves under the pressure George puts on her entering an unfamiliar monied world. Phil sees her as both a social climber and an unwelcome feminine presence further preventing his softer brother from embracing his rustic qualities. Rose just wants peace. But the dynamics start to shift when Peter arrives on summer vacation, and Phil sees someone new he can mold in his own image. But unlike Phil, Peter is confident in his own skin, and is unwilling to let a tyrant determine his family's happiness.
To say much more about the plot would be giving too much away. Campion lets the dynamics between these people simmer with the help of the beat of Jonny Greenwood's guitar and string-heavy score, until the tale reaches a conclusion that takes the audience completely by surprise. Having seen the film twice now, the clues are all there, but you are initially so beguiled you miss them.
Cumberbatch's penchant for playing the British upper crust works in his favor as Phil. Once you peel away the layers of grime with which he coats himself, he might otherwise be an educated dandy. He's a man who graduated Yale Phi Beta Kappa, but pretends as if he can't grasp basic language. It's a balancing act that Cumberbatch pulls off with a mix of menace and deeply hidden grace that only reveals itself at the most pivotal moments. He's matched beat for beat by Smit-McPhee, who wields his lithe body like a weapon, his big eyes always calculating. At times it looks like the mountain winds of New Zealand, which stands in for Montana, are going to sweep him away, using his billowing shirt as a sail. Peter has a coldness that evolves into the role of protector when he's with his mother, who Dunst plays with a resolve that evaporates under the strain of the mental weaponry Phil uses against her. Dunst's crumbling work should finally get her a long overdue first Oscar nomination.
Like Phil, who masks his deep discomfort with insults and braggadocio, The Power of the Dog waits to reveal its true nature. Greenwood's music signals that something's afoot, while the rich visuals captured by cinematographer Ari Wegner lure you into the vast, treacherous landscape of the mountainous West. Campion has made a film that's deeply erotic without any sex scenes, one that teases with its gaze before it ultimately takes your breath away.
This article was originally published during the 2021 New York Film Festival.