The Power of the Dog, Netflix, 128 minutes, 2021, R
Though filmed in the sweeping, jagged hills of New Zealand, The Power of the Dog—a Western from noted Kiwi director Jane Campion—does not get caught up in the sprawling beauty of the landscape. Based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name, it is a slow-burning interior character piece. Starting out as a film about how to deal with a troublesome housemate, it turns inward from there, unraveling into a tense drama about masculinity and the burdens shouldered by cowboys who try to stuff their emotions beneath their hats.
The year is 1925, and well-to-do Montana cattlemen and brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) are marking a quarter century since their first drive together. But quiet, well-mannered George is hardly in the mood to celebrate, having reached his limit with Phil’s boisterous and mean antics, especially after Phil hounds the waiter and customers at a local restaurant.
Anyway, George would rather spend his time with local widow Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), and the two are soon betrothed. When Rose and son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a skeletal and effeminate medical student, move into the Burbank family ranch, Phil is instantly standoffish, accusatory and overprotective. The film wavers comfortably—perhaps a little too waywardly, at first—between these four major players. But when it digs in its spurs and focuses squarely on the uneasy relationship between Phil (a rough man who at one point rips the testicles off a bull with his bare hands) and the very un-cowboylike teenager Peter, the film takes off.
The fantastic final act—including a Hitchcockian twist—will reward patient viewers, though genre fans expecting loads of flying lead will be disappointed. The closest thing to a gunfight in The Power of the Dog is a musical standoff, with one character plucking a banjo, the other struggling at a piano. While it may not be for everyone, The Power of the Dog knows the tune it’s playing and plays it well—well enough, it seems, to earn Campion the best director Academy Award.