Around this time of year, we are inundated with films that feel specifically made for critics to nominate at award shows. Not just the typical feel good, emotionally manipulative films with A List Actors and iconic directors that always seem to creep there way into the holiday season. But the clearly thoughtful and purposefully polarizing dark horses that you never even knew existed until it shows up on as a nominee in a bunch of categories. “The Power of the Dog” is the latter in just about every single way, with only being more accessible in terms of viewership due to being on Netflix. Were it not for streaming services making their way into awards contention, “The Power of the Dog” is the kind of film that would be able to be seen in the tiny playhouse style theater with only two showings a day. That’s not particularly a bad thing, and I know it sounds like I’m speaking pejoratively about the film. I’m not. The film is absolutely superb, but it is important to understand the context both in terms of its release timing and content. This is another example of masterful filmmaking, delivering a powerful yet extremely subdued western with stellar performances and excellent direction.
“The Power of the Dog” is written and directed by Jane Campion, who returns to film after almost 12 years. She is most notably known for her work on award winning films like “The Piano” and “Portrait of a Lady,” and has won and been nominated for numerous Film Festival Awards throughout her career. The film is based on a novel of the same name by Thomas Savage, with cinematography by Ari Wegner and scored by Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead, known for his work in “Phantom Thread” and “There Will be Blood.” These are important films to note, as we will most certainly come back to some of them later. The film tells the story of two wealthy ranch owner brothers Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jessie Plemons). After a trip to a small town, George takes a newly widowed housekeeper named Rose (Kirsten Dunst) as his wife, and Phil (who rules everyone around him through fear and anger) suspects her of being after their money. Her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) comes to the ranch during summer break from school (which George is paying for) and is immediately belittled and bullied by Phil. What transpires is a sort of triangle of relationships, as each new interaction and blending of families has unexpected consequences for everyone.
It’s hard to give a true synopsis of “The Power of the Dog.” The film is so subtle and subdued in its nature, and opts to really drive home that slow burn development that clearly has something boiling under the surface but takes as much time as it needs to get to its conclusion. There is a lot going on here, but Campion is in complete control over every single event and narrative moment. Her ambition to let the small, seemingly insignificant actions and conversations of its characters play out as slowly as she wants is rewarded by a deep, introspective look into her characters. Greenwood’s score swells with unnerving clamoring, and permeates the film with constant uneasiness. Before I know it was his score, I was consistently comparing the overall feel of “The Power of the Dog” to “There Will Be Blood.” They are perhaps more similar than I think both directors would care to admit, and it’s not just due to their settings being similar. Campion is calculating in her approach, much like Paul Thomas Anderson, and relies on her performers to convey much of story through silence and visual emotive reactions.
Nothing in “The Power of the Dog” is spelled out, and requires immense attention to detail, as much of what happens can be easily overlooked. If you’re not careful, you can walk away from the film not really grasping what it is actually about or even what has transpired. This is a meaningful film, but asks a lot of its audience to extract it through very little assistance. That’s not to say Campion is intentionally trying to put people off, either. Like I said, this is expert filmmaking, and a quintessential award season film when you think of what those kinds of films are. I have often enjoyed these kinds of films, but I can understand how the average filmgoer may be unable to peel back the layers and connect with the nuances of this slow paced western drama. It is truly a beautiful film, but “The Power of the Dog” demands a lot and feels more like a film for cinephiles and critics that the everyday, blockbuster movie lover.
I know I keep making the same disclaimer, but I don’t mean any of that as a knock on the film. We have manufactured a movie going experience that, but its very nature seems to be this “all films are for everyone always” and have brushed aside films with more of a targeted audience and different kind of purpose. We need both; we need the award season screening for meaning films as much as well the big, loud MCU films. “The Power of Dog” doesn’t NEED to be for everyone to be one of the most well made films of the year.
The film is also powered by an incredible cast, all of whom embody the uneasy and unsettling atmosphere that Campion’s direction strives to create. Cumberbatch once again demonstrates that he is and has always been more than a sorcerer, capable of tapping into a truly troubled, conflicted, rather off-putting man haunted by the world of his past in Phil. Phil is brash and cold, and uses his nostalgia for a time long gone to hang a command over everyone around him. Dunst is perhaps the stand out for me, as she is an actress I haven’t ever really cared for throughout her career. She’s fine, I’m sure, but just has never been for me. “The Power of the Dog” brings out the best in her, delivering a harrowing performance of broken woman struggling to protect her son from Phil’s disdain while wrestling with her own demons in a new home. And there’s Kodi Smit-Mcphee, who holds his own against a number of notable names, including Cumberbatch. Like everyone else in the film, he is quiet and subdued, with is real intentions (both good and bad) buried underneath the surface of a naive and misguided child trying to adjust to ranch life.
Jessie Plemmons puts his versatility to the test yet again. Plemmons seems to just sign on for as many different types of projects as possible just to prove that he can do it, and he brings that same weird energy to “The Power of the Dog.” He’s much more subdued her than say “Jungle Cruise,” and he is quickly becoming a must watch kind of actor for me. He never plays the same guy twice, and I am really enjoying the extensive and versatile filmography he’s stacked for himself over the last few years. Overall, there isn’t a single weak link in the entire cast, and the already brilliantly executed film is elevated by terrific performances all around.
“The Power of the Dog” is a film for true film lovers, the kind that appreciate slow burn style story telling and simple narratives that are more complex once you get below the surface. It is a satisfying conclusion, one that I didn’t really see coming. I don’t want to get too hyperbolic for fear that you’ll think I’m selling you a bill of goods. So I’ll stop myself from calling the films conclusion a “twist” ending and just say that is surprising. I can’t stress enough how much of a slow, complex, nuanced type of film this is. There is very little in the way of action, and “The Power of the Dog” is focused on the characters and how they affect each other in ways they don’t necessarily realize as they navigate their lives together. This is a prime example of character driven cinema, one that is executing on a superb level across the board.
I do highly recommend “The Power of the Dog,” as it is truly a wonderful film, but that recommendation comes with an addendum. The film is not for everyone, and is perfectly fine existing for those who seek out these kind of films. It is incredibly slow and purposeful, and requires your full attention from start to finish. It will certainly be an award season contender, and deserves its high critical praise. It is a welcomed return for Campion, and just may mark one of her best outings yet.
Don’t be surprised if you see “The Power of the Dog” pop up on a ton of nomination lists next year. Catch it on Netflix now.