Netflix UK film review: The Power of the Dog
James R | On 26, Nov 2021
Director: Jane Campion
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie
Where to watch The Power of the Dog online in the UK: Netflix UK
Deliver me from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dogs. Those are the words from Psalm 22 that gave the title The Power of the Dog to Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel – that the book has haunted Jane Campion enough to bring her back to feature filmmaking for the first time in 12 years is testament to the story’s sticking power.
The epic of intimate proportions takes us back to 1925, where Burbank brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) run a successful cattle ranch in Montana. They’re grown adults, but still share a bedroom. They’re dependent on each other, but determined to be their own men. When George brings a third person into their house, that seemingly symbiotic relationship is exposed as something more unhealthily parasitic.
The new arrival is Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a restaurant owner and widower who is struggling to find her way through life after her husband hanged himself. Her marriage to George is a surprise to us but comes as a shock to Phil, who begins a campaign to harass and humiliate his brother’s unwelcome bride. The introduction of her son, Peter (an excellent Kodi Smit-McPhee), only adds fuel to the slow-burn fire.
The result is as much Gothic horror as it is revisionist Western, and Campion turns the screws beautifully – and horribly – as Rose begins to crack until the cruel pressure. Kirsten Dunst delivers a heart-wrenching performance, particularly when it comes to her attempts to play the Radetzky March on the piano. Practised over and over, it becomes a motif that can’t be tamed, even as George’s social-climbing ways pay for said piano – an ongoing effort to present the Burbanks as a family of culture amid them there hostile frontier hills. A sequence in which Strauss’ repetitive melody is twanged threateningly by Phil on his banjo is wonderfully nerve-jangling – and even more so once the music stops and the oppressive silence resumes.
DoP Ari Wegner, whose past work includes Lady Macbeth, crafts an intense, brooding atmosphere, fuelled by the towering presence of Phil in the house’s all-engulfing gloom and amplified by the stark, open landscape that ultimately dwarves them all. The stunning visuals are echoed by Jonny Greenwood’s gorgeous score, which delicately rides from gentle strings to unsettling discordance, as Jane Campion brings each strand of the project together with simmering patience.
And, at the heart of all, Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t act so much as seethe on camera, gradually peeling back Phil’s complex, contradictory layers. He’s a charming raconteur able to inspire loyalty and entertain social company, but also doesn’t wash, seeks solitude and insults his “fatso” brother at every opportunity. It’s a studied performance of a natural performer and, while one climactic outburst is perhaps a little too overplayed, it’s absorbing to watch Campion and Cumberbatch explore Phil’s ideas of what it means to be a man – a lens through which we appreciate the shifting dynamics of his relationship with Smit-McPhee’s fragile but resilient Peter, whom Phil initially dubs “Miss Nancy”.
Notions of strength, duty, trauma and revenge are all swirling undercurrents that colour each fraught conversation in a new light, as Campion unpicks the lingering macho myth of the Wild West passed down through generations with the care of a taut rope being unwound. The result is moving, gripping and surprising, and a welcome return to the silver screen from a director whose storytelling carries an almost biblical weight.
The Power of the Dog is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £9.99 monthly subscription.