In recent years, Westerns have gone mostly extinct, The Power of the Dog won’t do anything to change that, but it isn’t trying to either. This slow and melodic drama tells a story that, while subdued and brutal, needed to be told. The acting is incredible, the score is hauntingly beautiful, the cinematography is beautiful and the direction is purposeful. It may not be for everyone, but it’s worth watching for the performances and visuals.
The Power of the Dog follows the Burbank brothers: Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), the overtly masculine and abrasive rancher and George (Jesse Plemons), the more reserved and emotionally attached of the two.
When George marries a widow, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and moves her and her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), to his family ranch, Phil starts to push back and mentally torment Rose and Peter. The film is based upon the Thomas Savage novel of the same name.
The plot in this film doesn’t feel very important until it really is, which is in its final moments. It feels like a purposeful misdirection, sure to confuse the average Netflix watcher and incite the publishing of “Ending Explained!” YouTube videos.
That’s not to say that it’s unnecessarily confusing or obtuse. The film chooses to end with a silenced gunshot instead of a massive bombshell, even if the reveal is that massive.
For the majority, the film is more focused on its script and performances, both of which are incredible with subtleties sure to excite viewers with a watchful eye or ear. Everyone here is Academy Award worthy, especially Cumberbatch, who commands the screen every time he’s shown. He’s magnetic; the film simply wouldn’t work without him, and he nails both the loud and quiet moments, selling every emotional subtlety asked of him. If anything, watch the film for him alone.
His character is as unlikable as they come — just a complete monster of a man, crass and cruel. His relationships with everyone within his house are strained and on the brink of collapse, but he’s looked at fondly by his ranch hands; they’re his not-so-close confidants and coworkers. He clearly isn’t close with anyone and lacks human intimacy, both sexual and otherwise, because of it. His only close relationship was with a skilled horse rider named Bronco Henry who, at the time of the film, has been dead for over twenty years.
The film is constantly building tension, both normal and uncomfortably sexual. There’s a strange and subtle way the film presents this. It’s all in the shots and score, making the film more and more intentionally uncomfortable as it goes along. It’s a masterclass in creating and evolving tension over its 125-minute runtime.
The character usually on the receiving end of that tension is Rose. Her relationship with George feels natural and unnatural at the same time. It’s like they both just needed someone in their lives to fill the void, but that person only sometimes feels like what they actually need. When those moments do come, Plemons’ and Dunst’s chemistry together is unmistakable, probably due to the actors’ very real marriage.
Jesse Plemons isn’t given much to do after he gets married, but the time he does get is well-utilized. Plemons has been fantastic in everything I’ve seen him in, from Like Mike to Breaking Bad, his streak of great performances continues here.
All of these performances are thanks to writer-director Jane Campion, who put all her energy into making this film as impactful as it could possibly be. The performances she gets out of these actors are all phenomenal. Her screenplay is also deliberate and intentional with every word and scene. This is a film where every word spoken, and every word left unspoken, is incredibly important.
So much is left unsaid, left unseen, for the audience to put together themselves. It’s the power of suggestion that Campion uses here, and the places the mind can go with just a small push are scarier and more meaningful than what she could ever put on the page or on film. Much of this is also thanks to the film's visuals.
The cinematography by Ari Wegner is exceptionally beautiful, being a standout for the film and possibly for her career so far. She somehow managed to make a film of muddy browns into one of the most visually stunning films of the year. Her use of the landscape and close-ups on characters and objects are both meaningful to the film’s conveyed themes and simultaneously gorgeous to look at.
The score is similarly gorgeous. Composed by Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead fame, it’s absolutely haunting. With sweeping violins, trumpets and pianos, it hits all the dramatic notes while also having moody guitars to level the whole thing. It’s unsettling and hypnotic, beautiful yet ambiguous. I usually prefer scores to be in the background, not taking the attention away from the actors or the film’s events. However, this score is intrusive, and I love it for that. It’s the best score I’ve heard this year, bar none.
I wish I could’ve seen The Power of the Dog in a theater, with the best sound and the biggest screen, but instead I watched it at home on Netflix, the way the majority of people will. I feel the same way about this that I felt about Dune: Seeing it in a theater matters. If you can and it’s safe for you to go, see it in a theater. While this film isn’t anywhere near as big as a Marvel film like Eternals or a sci-fi epic like Dune, it’s just as, if not more, cinematic than them.
Do yourself a favor and watch The Power of the Dog, even if it’s just because of the actors in it or because you want to see some really beautiful shots. Where it lacks in action, it makes up for in beauty, subtlety and performance.