The Power of the Dog

Jane Champion’s gorgeous western is another masterpiece from her.

“The Power of the Dog” is a western with neither bank robbers nor gunfights, but a vivid character study when people reflect on their lives and never settle for easy story formulas. There’s a mean rancher, a nice guy, his meek wife, and her sensitive son, and as the story unfolds, we see these characters grasp with their own human nature.

The movie, released by Netflix and based on Thomas Savage’s novel, was written for the screen and directed by Jane Campion, best known for “The Piano,” and this would be her first feature since “Bright Star.” Here, she provides empathy and darkness within the characters and screenplay.

I saw it twice, with the second time being at the New York Film Festival, and I enjoyed it even more a second time. In fact, I want to see it again.

The story takes place in Montana, 1925 (filmed in New Zealand). Benedict Cumberbatch gives a nomination worthy performance as a charismatic and mean-spirited rancher, named Phil Burbank while Jesse Plemons plays his kinder brother George, whom he likes to call “Fatso.” Phil is a dick to other people and his horse and often talks about his deceased hero Broncho Henry, while George marries the widowed restaurant and rooming house owner Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), who has a sensitive son named Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

Rose is also a former actress and pianist, who tries to get her fingers on the keyboard, but is intimated by Phil because she can’t remember how to play her song, which resorts her into drinking again. And Peter is often teased by Phil and his men for his gentle mannerisms and how he makes paper flowers, while he prefers to be in seclusion. However, as Phil spends some time with Peter, he learns to connect with him.

Cumberbatch gives one of his best performances in the ways he eases into his character and uses his words and tone to keep everyone in line. Matter of fact, he threatens a group of musicians in one scene, and bonds with the boy in his own ways. Smit-McPhee shines in an almost similar aspect as Lucas Hedges in “Manchester by the Sea” in the ways he convinces us of his good nature and goals of being a doctor (certain practice scenes might hurt you). Dunst and Plemons (both an engaged couple) have their moments of sentimentality-how they meet and how they live the life of a married couple with a jerk like Phil to deal with.

The supporting actors also include Thomasin McKenzie as a young maid, Genevieve Lemon as an older maid, Keith Carradine as the governor, and Peter Caroll and Frances Conroy as Phil and George’s parents.

As with “The Piano,” this movie shares its affection for music and characters, as we see Rose trying to get her tune back on the piano. And it also shows us the different types of characters merging together with first-rate performances. Phil is mean, George is nice, Rose is timid, and Peter is sensitive. Under Campion’s guidance, we really see these characters and how life treats them for better or worse.

Some of the movie’s best shots, photographed by Ari Wegner, feature Phil getting his horse to move and how Peter intends to become a doctor, and I love the image of blood drops on some windy grass. Some of the scenes can be a bit insensitive for certain viewers, but most of the movie blows Campion to reflect on some of the best westerns like “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.” And the score, composed by the affective Johnny Greenwood, keeps the tone of the movie through its emotions.

“The Power of the Dog” is a human Western, which may have been filmed in New Zealand, but nonetheless is more about the reality of the characters, and the performances who bring them to life. This is one of the year’s best films, and for those of you who aren’t ready to go back to theaters yet (vaccinated or not), you’ll be happy to find it on Netflix soon.

Rating: 4 out of 4.

In Select Theaters This Wednesday

Streaming on Netflix December 1

Categories: Drama, Romance, Western

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