Written and directed by Jane Campion, and based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Savage, The Power of the Dog is a Western drama, which is new to Netflix. The movie stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Kodi Smit-McPhee, and tells the story of two brothers, Phil and George Burbank, and their relationship with a widower and her son.
In the movie, the year is 1925 and the brothers Burbank are out on a cattle drive with their posse, when they stop at an inn to have a meal and rest. The inn is owned by widower, Rose Gordon, who runs the establishment with the help of her son, Peter.
Upon meeting Rose, George becomes smitten and the pair soon marry. George then pays for Peter to go to medical school, while Rose moves into the Burbank ranch in Montana, to live with the brothers.
While George is a kind and courteous man, Phil is angry, jealous, and hostile. He is unhappy about the new living arrangement, believes Rose is only interested in George’s money, and is less than accommodating to her.
Over time, Rose becomes depressed, finding it increasingly difficult to live with Phil. She takes up drinking and her mental and physical health begins to decline.
When Peter returns from medical school, he notices a change in his mother. But is there anything he can do to help her, or will Phil’s overbearing personality continue to shape life on the ranch?
The Power of the Dog arrives on Netflix today following a limited theatrical run. The movie was given a short burst in select countries, before being opened up to a much wider audience through the reach of the steaming giant.
Because this movie has already played to some audiences, I can tell you that it arrives surrounded by a positive buzz. Audiences have responded well to the movie and director Jane Campion has previously picked up the Silver Lion award for Best Direction at the Venice International Film Festival.
This accolade, plus the positive feedback, should tell you something about this movie. If it doesn’t, then let me tell you myself: This is a well-made, beautifully shot picture, with a real eye for detail, some stunning cinematography, and a fantastic performance from Benedict Cumberbatch.
Do I need to tell you anything else? Well, yes, I should also say The Power of the Dog is a slow-burning tale, so it is best suited for those who like to get lost in leisurely storytelling and want to spend time taking in the stunning vistas.
This isn’t an action-focused Western, in fact, there’s no action at all; this is a pure piece of drama, and as such, it may not be for everyone. But for those who do connect with The Power of the Dog, they will find this movie delivers, and as far as I’m concerned, it certainly worked for me.
I’ll talk about Benedict Cumberbatch momentarily, but for now, one of the biggest selling points of this film is just how visually appealing it is. There are sections of this movie that look as if they have been lifted from a painting.
Every inch of this film is rich, sumptuous, and intoxicating. From breath-taking landscapes, to intimate character interactions, this is ruddy good-looking movie.
Films have a way of transporting audiences from one place to another; be it an exotic paradise, a winter wonderland, or in this case, the mountain views of western America. Sometimes they do their best to create a world, but often they fail to take the audience with them.
This is not the case with The Power of the Dog. Sat in my cold little flat in Manchester, which backs onto a rather busy, and rather noisy carriageway, I was able to leave the chill and the hustle-and-bustle behind for a couple of hours, and get lost in the sprawling majesty of Montana.
For a short period of time, I was transported to a much warmer, much more aesthetically pleasing location, and boy, did I enjoy the trip. The cinematography on display here is impressive stuff.
Moving onto Benedict Cumberbatch now, because no discussion about The Power of the Dog would be worth anything without highlighting his performance. Cumberbatch plays a rather hostile, rather prickly cowboy, who casts a very long shadow over this movie, and he’s so very, very good in what he does.
His performance is considered and nuanced. There’s a heaviness within Phil Burbank’s heart, but also a little depth, and a secret compartment to his life that is heavily hinted at, and could explain so much about his demeanour, but is never made explicitly clear.
Cumberbatch manages to balance all the elements of his character, and bring him to the screen in a compelling way. While Phil is not a particularly likeable man, he is a character that becomes a key focus of the story and one you can’t help but find interesting.
His constant referencing to another character, who never appears in the movie, also speaks volumes. It adds another layer to the film, and opens this Western up for discussion.
Backing up Cumberbatch is a great cast, with Jess Plemons bringing his usual likeability to the screen in the shape of Phil’s brother George, and Kirsten Dunst on fine form as Rose. Dunst in particular gives a strong, understated turn, which demonstrates the fragility of her character.
And then there is Kodi Smit-McPhee, who gets the least amount of screen time out of the four, and yet has arguably the biggest impact on the story. Peter is a calculated character, who sees more than others do, and as with Phil, there is a lot more going on behind Peter’s eyes than there first appears.
Again, this is quite a subtle, nuanced performance from Smit-McPhee, and one which brings so much, by saying so little. It’s excellent casting in an excellent film.
The Power of the Dog is a fine picture, and one that I enjoyed very much. But it was an enjoyment that came from simply letting the movie wash over me, rather than letting it bash me over the head with bravado or set pieces.
This is a slow picture, and its beauty comes from the journey, so do bare this in mind when approaching it. There is some gold here, but I do believe you need to be open to some aspects of the film to fall in love with it completely, and I do expect some may check out early because of the glacial pace.
I’ve spoken before about how I’m not a huge fan of Westerns, but I am getting there, and movies like The Power of the Dog are certainly helping. I found this picture to hit just the right spot for me, and while that won’t be the case for everyone, I’m sure many will find themselves having a similar experience.