The Power of the Dog is a Trojan horse. The movie, out now on Netflix, stars bonafide stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemmons in what appears at first glance to be a Western, a genre having something of a revival at the moment.
Appearances are deceiving, however, and despite the immaculate attention to detail in Jane Campion's movie – from the meticulous costuming to the sweeping landscapes – The Power of the Dog really isn't a Western at all. In fact, it's a Gothic psychodrama more akin to Hitchcock or Daphne Du Maurier than anything starring John Wayne.
Based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Savage, The Power of the Dog follows brothers Phil (Cumberbatch) and George (Plemmons); the former is a skilled ranch hand, while the latter looks towards the future. When George comes home with new wife Rose (Dunst) and her odd, teenaged son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a game of psychological warfare breaks out as everyone struggles to find their place.
In effect, not much actually happens in The Power of the Dog. It is a movie about the psychology of four people, individually and as a collective. We spend time with each person in their most private moments, seeing them with their guards down.
But what's most troubling about the movie is how they act together, in particular Phil's slow and cruel torture of Rose, who seems to embody everything he hates in the world. The psychosexual tension is palpable, between mother and son, brother and brother, the ranchers themselves: no one is safe from the lure of lust and the wild.
As an audience member, it puts you on the edge of your seat. There is no respite for us, no chance to relax. Everyone lives on the precipice of disaster — but the nature of that disaster is unique for every single person. Not being able to see each other's boogeymen is what isolates and terrifies each character but also defines them.
As Phil, Cumberbatch said he had the furthest to go acting-wise, and immersed himself in the life of a rancher – learning to braid, to castrate cows, to play the banjo amongst other things. And he embodies the physicality of Phil without once breaking the facade that Phil has so expertly crafted for himself.
The things we learn about each character come in drips and drabs, mostly from other people, observations made in passing or comments meant to cut each other down. It is this slow unspooling of narrative and character that keeps you riveted.
This level of engagement is down not only to Campion's expert directing but to the cast, whose attention to the world they're in is so rapt that you never once doubt the truth of the lives they are living. Dunst in particular crafts a downward spiral so visceral that anyone would empathise — but for women, in particular, it's a painfully and instinctively believable situation.
The unsung hero is relative newcomer Smit-McPhee, whose quiet and simmering oddity is somehow repulsive and endearing. Like the film itself, each character slowly reveals themselves to be something wholly other than what you expected.
The movie's final sucker punch may be obvious to some, but even if it is it winds you all the same. The Power of the Dog is a long, rolling boil of a movie, and even in its quieter simmering moments, there is no reprieve from the tension.
This can be exhausting to watch, but the captivating performances of its stars are so fascinating and energetic that you find yourself compelled to stay attentive, looking for clues and subtext in every subtle word or glance. It's a credit to Cumberbatch, Dunst, Plemmons and Smit-McPhee that each line and every action is imbued with layer upon layer of meaning.
The Power of the Dog is a whodunnit – a la Rear Window – in which the 'it' is an ongoing fever dream set against the bleak backdrop of the shapeshifting mountains. It is startling and unsettling, deeply moving and a bit frightening: everything you could possibly want.
The Power of the Dog is now available to watch on Netflix
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