Jane Campion return to filmmaking after a twelve-year hiatus with a composed yet striking rumination on masculinity and repression.
The second Netflix western of the festival, The Power of the Dog starts as a tale of two brothers – the plump, well-scrubbed George (Jesse Plemons, an undemonstrative Newfoundland dog) and the lean, raw-boned Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch, a sharp-eyed Border Collie) – who run a large ranch in Montana circa 1925.
Phil leads the ranch hands while George, it is implied, looks after the business side. They may be chalk and cheese – Phil semi-jokingly calls his brother “fatso”; George talks to Phil very little – but they sleep side by side in twin beds.
Their complicated kinship is further challenged when George meets and quickly marries guesthouse owner Rose (Kirsten Dunst, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel in need of a loving home)1, much to Phil’s chagrin. She and her son Peter (Kodi Smith-McPhee,2 perhaps a gangly greyhound) take up residence in the large, cold manor that the brother’s call home; bringing them into insidious conflict with Phil, who subtly seeks to undermine the woman he views as having usurped him.
Those fearing that The Power of the Dog is just another film about a brutal, insecure man terrorising a helpless woman may be glad to hear that the narrative shifts into something altogether more subtle as Phil, his motivations obscure, takes Peter under his wing; much to Rose’s distress.
Phil, acerbic and physically assured, discovers that the similarities between him and Peter, pale, gawky, and dark-eyed, may be more complex than he first assumed – the man who gelds bulls bare-handed, the boy with his anatomy book and his scalpel. In an extraordinarily intimate scene, shot largely in closeup, power passes from one to the other with the simple act of lighting and sharing a cigarette.
Usually restricted to playing geniuses, historical or otherwise, Cumberbatch hints at Phil’s insecurity beneath the seething intelligence and that insincere smile. This is not a powerhouse performance, sucking up all the oxygen, but one that exists alongside and feeds those with whom he shares scenes.
There are no gunfights in The Power of the Dog – Phil’s only weapon seems to be his banjo, with which he terrorises Rose – and indeed there is a sense that the Old West is coming to an end. Phil keeps and cares for the saddle of a late, legendary rancher, Bronco Henry, who did not live, one thinks, to see the road that now winds its way through the rocky, obsidian outcrops.
Cinematographer Ari Wagner makes the most of the vast, stunning openness of the New Zealand landscape – the sun glowing beneath heavy cloud cover makes it seem a mythical paradise – but Jonny Greenwood’s propulsive, string-heavy score, reminiscent of his work on There Will Be Blood, maintains a steady atmosphere.
Thematically rich but understated, The Power of the Dog has a pedigree that marks it as one of the best films of the year. Expect to har more of this one come awards season.
The Power of the Dog is released in UK cinemas on November 19th, 2021, and will be available on Netflix from December 1st
- She and Plemons are married IRL.
- Who also starred in 2015’s Slow West alongside Michael Fassbender, to whom a bearded Cumberbatch bears more than a passing resemblance.