by Mason Leaver
The Power of the Dog is a film that understands the importance of simplicity. The story is straightforward, the cast small, the performances understated - powerful, but not “flashy.” This emphasis on simplicity lends The Power of the Dog a “slow-burn” tone, allowing the drama and tension to build between the four main characters over the entire two hour runtime. It is an adaptation of a book by the same name, and director Jane Campion has delivered a film with a distinctly literary quality. The Power of the Dog is a western which takes its time to focus on the simple and intimate story of a handful of characters, and it’s intensity of focus leaves the audience with a deeply rewarding experience.
Power is the story of four individuals living on a cattle farm in 1920’s Montana. Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) are brothers, the owners of the cattle ranch. We are given a sense that the brothers were once close friends, but have drifted apart as George has grown more accustomed to a comfortable life and a desire for a family. Phil, meanwhile, is strictly dedicated to the ranching life, and is often very cruel towards others. The film frequently references the story of Remus and Romulus, the brothers from the ancient Roman myth. The brothers’ relationship is further strained when George falls in love with Rose (Kirsten Dunst), who runs a small inn that the brothers stop at. After marrying Rose, George invites her and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to stay at his and Phil’s home. Tensions rise as Phil seeks ways to make the lives of Rose and Peter miserable, and as Rose’s mental health begins to decline.
The four central characters of The Power of the Dog
Without much exciting spectacle or action to lean on, The Power of the Dog relies heavily on the performances of its main characters. Thankfully, each actor rises to the occasion. Cumberbatch has played villains in the past, such as his performances in Star Trek: Into Darkness or The Hobbit, but this is the first role I have seen him in where he feels genuinely frightening. The intensity with which Phil hates Rose is detailed subtly in Cumberbatch’s performance. In a similar film such as There Will be Blood, Cumberbatch would be given a scene in which he explodes dramatically in anger. However, in this film, Phil is much more reserved, only shouting occasionally to scare others off. Most of his time spent is subtly manipulating Rose and going out of his way to bully her. Plemons and Dunst (who are married in real life as well as the film) play off of each other remarkably well. Plemons manages to capture a certain kind of melancholy stemming from his utter devotion to Rose. Dunst, meanwhile, demonstrates a different sort of melancholy as she slowly slips into alcoholism and depression.
Besides its performances, the film also has a great deal of artistic merit in its visuals and music. The cinematography of the film is sprawling and vast, featuring beautiful landscapes filmed in New Zealand, passing as Montana. Cinematographer Ari Wegner has an excellent understanding of when to pull the camera wide to show the gorgeous vistas that the characters occupy, and when to punch in for a closeup on an actor’s face that communicates a great deal without ever speaking a word. Much of the interaction between the characters happens in silent gazes and stares, and Wegner captures these movements with precision. Another stand out aspect of the film is the score. Written by Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead fame), the score builds an atmosphere of dread and tension throughout the film. The music is mainly composed of instrumentation that would be typical in a Western, but Greenwood spins these leitmotifs in such a way that the listener is always just slightly on edge, slightly unsure of what is next.
Benedict Cumberbatch stands in front of the vast New Zealand landscape
The Power of the Dog is a film which shines in every aspect. Beyond its technical mastery of the art form, the film’s pacing allows for a fresh tone not often seen in modern westerns. It’s slow and brooding pace creates a world which feels lived in and real, a sense that the characters that we see are complex individuals. Director Jane Campion has arranged a compelling drama that strikes a balance between visual beauty, nuanced performances, and an intriguing story.
The Power of the Dog is available now on Netflix