By Bradley Lane
The Power of the Dog is razor tight, whip-smart post-Western drama crafted by master filmmaker, Jane Campion. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch as emotionally hardened ranch hand, Phil, and Jesse Plemons as his awkward but kindhearted brother, George, the film’s events begin to take a turn for the dramatic when George marries Kirsten Dunst’s character, Rose. The reserved Rose views George as an opportunity to escape the abuse and degradation of her job as an innkeeper, and more importantly, obtain what was unimaginable opportunities for her teenage son, Peter, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, through the wealth of her spouse. Phil violently torments Rose and Peter as retribution for distancing his brother from him, that is, until Phil begins to open himself up to the possibility of finding a love great enough to fill the void of George leaving him.
The tension of Jane Campion’s film is found not in overt emotional outburst or long dramatic monologues, but rather in silence and the smallest of details. The camerawork, performances, and pacing all beg the audience to lean in closer to appreciate all of the nuance on display. As a consequence of the decision to slow the film down and focus on subtlety, I expect some viewers to find the film too slow or even boring, but this reading of the film would be a massive disservice to the amount of skill on display. This technique of employing a style of reserved filmmaking to further engage the audience evokes other masters of slow cinema like Robert Bresson, Theodore Dryer and Yasujiro Ozu.
Campion’s lens captures emotional distance in a way that feels tangible, as if it were a physical barrier blocking the characters from seeing one another. This sense of weight dedicated to examining each character’s inner turmoil is what makes the tenderness of Campion’s story so pointed. It comes as a surprise when, despite callousness, characters are able to connect. What happens when the story eventually gives way to vulnerability and care is the true masterstroke of The Power of the Dog. It is like a sort of cinematic magic trick that the allows the film to stand out from its influences.
The film also cleverly uses its setting to lull the audience into genre expectation, before violently ripping the rug out from under them. It may look like a Western, but it plays with genre conventions enough that it makes it clear we are far, far away from John Wayne and Clint Eastwood. It uses the myth of their stoic, ultra-masculine heroism to its advantage by carefully peeling back that archetype’s layers to reveal that it never really existed in the first place.
Despite a slow methodical pace, The Power of the Dog is a thoroughly gripping and cuttingly poignant story of inner struggle, the price of vulnerability and the eternal justice that comes for us all. The Power of the Dog is the current frontrunner for this week’s Academy Awards this Sunday, March 27, and is currently available to stream on Netflix. – 4.5/5 stars