Netflix continues its streak of awards buzzy films with Palme d’Or winning director Jane Campion’s first film in twelve years, The Power of the Dog. The slow-burn Western opened to critical acclaim at its world premiere at the 78th Venice International Film Festival. Many have praised it to be one of the best films of the year, highlighting Benedict Cumberbatch’s incredible performance. But does it truly hold the power of a best picture?
Set in 1925 Montana, the film follows the story of a pair of wealthy ranch-owning brothers, Phil and George Burbank. Their power dynamic is clear, the crisply dressed George (Jesse Plemons) overcompensating his lesser intellect with his wealth contrasting the volatile, grimy rancher Phil (Cumberbatch). The two are close but not with love, rather with tolerance. Phil uses George as his personal punching bag as he bullies others he deems weak. His obsession with the romanticized memory of his mentor, “Bronco” Henry, fuels his aggressive ideal of masculinity. The power he holds over his crew is superior to that of his brother’s, despite them working for the whole Burbank family. Of course, Phil’s power is challenged by the arrival of the quiet widow his brother marries, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and her awkwardly gangly son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
Cumberbatch’s performance sets the tension of the film right out the gate, but it’s Campion’s direction and Jonny Greenwood’s score that truly reel you in. The orchestra of expressive, twangy strings puts you on edge to complement well-seasoned visuals that build a quietly turbulent atmosphere. Campion relishes in discomforting the audience, pushing us up close and personal with some of the worst humans possible. Though Phil seems to be the deplorable protagonist, the entire cast carries the film’s true protagonist: the grueling fear of being alone.
Each character faces a battle with loneliness. George finds companionship with Rose, but work keeps him away from her for periods of time. Rose is left to feebly exist around her warring brother-in-law, her only comfort found at the bottom of a bottle. Peter has always been a loner by nature, protective of his mother’s wellbeing. Phil builds a façade of chosen solitude. He actively rejects upper-class expectations and resigns himself to privately yearn for his late mentor. Campion’s screenplay intricately weaves in themes of sexuality but also explores how humans cope differently with isolation.
The Power of the Dog rests its weight on the predatorial dance its sadistic protagonist plays on his victims. Cumberbatch’s performance succeeds in deeply unsettling the viewer just as much as the characters around him. However, the film plays with subversion in the narrative, surprisingly developing Peter’s character more than expected. Unfortunately, the film’s slowly burning pacing stumbles in its third act. It awkwardly propels multiple build-ups that seemingly compete with each other. The ending is overshadowed by mechanical exposition, forgoing the power of subtlety at the beginning of the film. Themes that felt profound float to the surface of a shallow narrative pond. The characters pay their dues, but was it worth it?
There is no doubt that Campion has masterfully crafted an atmospherically exquisite film, painting a portrait of a Western America on the cusp of the Great Depression. But this portrait does not have much more to it than well-painted characters with their purposes on their sleeves. The lack of substance ached throughout the 126-minute runtime. What seems to be a deeper exploration of toxic masculinity ends up a simplistic power game between two morally apprehensible characters. – Ileana Meléndez
The Power of the Dog is streaming now on Netflix!
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