My 2 Cents on Netflix’s The Power of the Dog

What’s new, everyone? Unless you’ve been closed off from the film circuit for a while, you’ve most likely heard of all the praise that’s been heaped on The Power of the Dog, the Western psychological drama that writer/director Jane Campion adapted for Netflix from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name. It’s been on my watchlist since it came out in December 2021, and having recently seen it, I can declare it a splendid creation that drew me in with those first few moments, slowly but surely pulled me through each and every thoughtfully paced beat of its layered story, and spit me out the other end with an increasingly burning desire to analyze all the subtleties of the gem I’d just consumed.

Taking place in 1920s Montana, The Power of the Dog starts out with the two Burbank brothers as they run a ranch together: Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), the charismatic one of the duo who’s also easily capable of doling out cruelty against others around him in the most passive-aggressive fashion, and George (Jesse Plemons), his quiet and gentle counterpart. Their lifestyle gets shaken up when George marries widower Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and brings her home to the ranch, followed by her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) coming to stay with them over the summer.

Personally speaking, this is a significant moment for me due to the fact that this is the first time I’ve ever watched an entry from the filmography of Campion, whose last movie was Bright Star, the 2009 John Keats biopic starring Ben Whishaw and Abbie Cornish. Considering Dog is the kind of incredibly nuanced film where every single beat is essential to the narrative, going right down to the tiniest facial expressions and the most minor-seeming shots, I feel like this was the right way to introduce myself to Campion’s work. It isn’t a piece that’s showy with its mastery. No, it relies instead on allowing the subdued tension that it sets up right at the start to patiently unroll down the narrative road with a sneaky foreboding that creeps up on you and silently heralds the ominous events that will manifest. Perfectly complemented by the breathtakingly rural backdrop of Otago, New Zealand, where Campion shot the film, Dog uses its tension as a tool to deconstruct, among other things, the power, fragility, and emotions that exist in masculinity, particularly the toxic sort.

As much as I’d love to address the other chunks of thematic heft carried by Dog, doing so would constitute crossing over into spoiler territory. In fact, I suggest skipping the trailers if you haven’t seen them yet, since I feel like they do give away a hint of what’s to come. What I can say, though, is that this is the sort of movie that deploys its story beats so subtly that a few of them may fly right over your head until you rewatch them and/or look up opinions from other viewers who’ve analyzed them. Despite the fact that I usually have a meticulous eye for such small details, I know that’s what happened for me. I have yet to stream Dog a second time, but it will happen soon, because it demands reevaluation. I keep mentally replaying specific scenes that I originally interpreted to be portraying one thing, but now that I know how it all wraps up, I can reflect on those same scenes and realize they were depicting something entirely different. It really is an enrapturing film in that sense.

Boosting Dog is the impressive cast. Cumberbatch summons such a deeply menacing and hateful air as Phil, yet he compels you to sympathize with the anguish that, as you realize over the course of the film, he’s harboring inside of himself. Let Me In, ParaNorman, and Alpha star Smit-McPhee is a masterful performer who pays meticulous attention to every movement he makes, whether it’s the gaze he directs at a costar or the thumb he runs back and forth over the teeth of a comb, so that you can construe them in different ways depending on how many times you’ve seen Dog. Plemons imbues the role of George with an unassuming benevolence that, in comparison to Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee’s showier performances, can be easy to forget about when he’s gone for much of the film’s second half. Dunst brings a human weariness to Rose, who has to endure Phil’s insidious inclination towards psychologically needling her at every possible opportunity. Plus, Plemons and Dunst are married in real life, which is likely why the two feel so comfortable with each other onscreen. Originally, Elisabeth Moss and Paul Dano were the choices for these roles, but I’m glad we got the former couple instead.

As a film, TV, and video game score nerd, I can’t miss the chance to show my love for an excellent soundtrack when it comes along. For Dog, the credit goes to Jonny Greenwood, the lead guitarist, keyboardist, and instrumentalist for Radiohead, as well as the composer for There Will Be Blood, The Master, Phantom Thread, and Spencer. His Oscar-nominated Dog score (let’s see if he can snag the Best Original Score statuette as well) can be contemplative or tranquil occasionally, but generally there’s a haunting undercurrent running throughout the soundtrack that bolsters the strain within the Burbank household. The subtitles calling the score “uneasy music” a few times in the film is a proper case in point.

If you have Netflix or you know someone who has a subscription, make sure you carve out time for The Power of the Dog. It’s an enthralling and well-crafted piece of art that has potential to net a few Oscars on March 27. Will it be for Best Picture, maybe Best Director? I’d confidently say Best Actor will go to Cumberbatch, Best Supporting Actor to Smit-McPhee, and Best Supporting Actress to Dunst if they weren’t up against, in their respective categories, Andrew Garfield for Netflix’s tick, tick…BOOM!, Troy Kotsur for Apple TV+’s CODA, and Ariana DeBose for Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story reboot. No matter what, it will be intriguing to watch what happens for Campion’s latest film.

Until next time, stay healthy and stay strong!

Windup score: 95/100

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