AFI Fest Review: ‘The Power of the Dog’

It has been more than ten years since Jane Campion directed a feature film and her latest, The Power of the Dog, was worth waiting for. The meticulously crafted adaptation of Thomas Savage’s novel is a searing portrait of masculinity, loneliness, and self-imposed isolation.

Set in prohibition-era Montana, The Power of the Dog tells the story of Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his brother George (Jesse Plemons), two ranchers with acres of land far away from any sort of civilization. Apart from the housekeepers and a few ranch hands, the brothers rarely spend time with anyone else, though George keeps regular contact with their parents and business associates.

In these early scenes, we see the stark contrast between the two men. Phil is liked and —more importantly — respected by his crew but an irascible, even cruel man toward others. George always look a little bit sad, holding in all the things he can’t say to his brother, apologizing quietly whenever Phil commits an offense against a bystander. Both actors are strong and in the case of Cumberbatch, it is one of the most compelling he has given. He frequently plays unlikeable curmudgeons, but in this case he holds back just enough to give the sense that there is more to him and it boils just below the surface, threatening to bubble over at any minute.

On a cattle drive the Burbanks and their team stay at an inn owned by Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), a widow and mother to teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). In the hasty manner of the time period, George, who is quite taken with Rose, marries her and brings her home to live at the ranch. Peter goes to boarding school but returns to stay for the summer once classes let out.

Kirsten Dunst is achingly, beautifully understated as a world-weary woman who never seems to find a lucky break. The heartbreak extending from her first husband’s death has never healed and when paired with her new circumstances in the unhappy Burbank household, depression, pain, and her new husband’s cluelessness drive her to drink too much, soon falling into the clutches of alcoholism.

Upon first glance, Kodi Smit-McPhee seems unnaturally stiff, standing out from the others for the wrong reasons. But when the picture starts to become more clear, every choice he has made as an actor, every collaborative decision with his scene partners and his director, twist into brilliant dimensions and facets revealing a truly masterful performance from the young man who has been exceptional since his stand out works in the one-two punch of The Road and Let Me In. Here, as Peter, he carries the weight of his father’s death, his mother’s grief, and the unease of always being on the outside of things. At the ranch, he is frequently the target of Phil’s insults and resentful glaring, until he decides to find a way to break down the walls Phil uses to shield himself from worldly concerns. What befalls them is surprising in its complexity and slowly peeled layers.

Jane Campion has been a gift to cinema since her first feature, Sweetie, in 1989. Now, nearly a dozen film and television projects and a couple of decades later, her patient style and commitment to passionate characters come together in one of the finest films of her career. Unfolding like the chapters of the book upon which it is based, Campion’s script is equally brilliant for its use of dialogue and well-placed silence.

Pulling back from great performances and writing, The Power of the Dog is photographed beautifully under the watch of Ari Wegner, the cinematographer behind another of the year’s eye-popping wonders, Zola. From wide open daytime landscapes to intimate candlelit dinner parties, Wegner’s lens frames every scene with breathtaking perfection. Further adding to the film’s off-kilter power, Jonny Greenwood’s score heightens the tension with its unsettling, uncomfortable, and still beautiful melodies that never lull us into a false sense of security, but often leave us feeling shaken even after a tense moment passes.

The Power of the Dog is a slow burn that only grows more riveting, building to a conclusion that feels earned, satisfying, and shocking all at the same time.

The Power of the Dog is distributed by Netflix and will be released December 1.

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