Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog is a slow paced, meditative drama set in 1920s Wyoming. Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is one of the last real cowboys on the land. He’s as rough, tough, dirty, can castrate a bull with just a knife and his bare hands in seconds and looks down on anyone who can’t, including his brother, George. George (Jesse Plemons) is the rounder, cleaner, soft spoken and handles the business end of their cattle ranch. On a cattle drive, the brothers and their ranch hands dine at a restaurant owned by Rose (Kirsten Dunst), where Phil torments her and her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). While apologizing for his brother, George falls for Rose, marries her and brings her to their ranch to live with them. Phil despises this and is sure Rose only married George for their money. Phil relentlessly torments poor Rose, driving her to drink, a habit she despised in others. After being away at school, Peter comes to the ranch for the summer and notices how far his mother has fallen under Phil’s torment. Yet, Phil tries to reach out to Peter. Perhaps he sees a bit of himself in the skinny, awkward young man and wants to help him learn to ride and fit in with the cowboys. Phil even wants to make Peter a rope, and Peter eagerly provides him enough rawhide to finish it.
The acting in this film is absolutely superb. Cumberbatch does not seem the type to play a cowboy and yet he slips into this role so perfectly. The way he disappears into the grime, torment and hard exterior of Phil is amazing. And then as we see Phil in his alone, intimate moments, Cumberbatch expresses a repressed longing inside of Phil and we understand his motives more. Dunst is beautifully raw as a widowed mother who lives in torment, grows more and more unsure of herself and turns to drinking to cope. Every scene with the piano is so emotional and feels more and more raw as that plot arc moves. Plemons’s character becomes an intriguing opposite to Cumberbatch’s Phil, clean, quiet and trying to please everyone around him and yet looking away, or perhaps blissfully unaware of the real issues lurking around him.
One of the biggest surprises in this film is Kodi Smit-McPhee. This feels like his first big, complex role as an adult and he nails it. On the surface, he shows this perfect mix of being a loner, out of place and in need of a strong male role model. Yet, hiding underneath he shows that Peter is cold, methodical and smarter than he lets on. I don’t know if Kodi will win an Oscar, especially since he is younger, but I’m excited to see what else he’ll do in his career.
The Power of the Dog is currently nominated for an impressive twelve Academy Awards. They include best cinematography, film editing, original score, sound, adapted screenplay and production design. Benedict Cumberbatch earned his second nomination for lead actor. Kirsten Dunst earned her first nomination as supporting actress. Jesse Plemons and Koki Smit-McPhee both earned their first Oscar nominations, both for supporting actor. And Jane Campion became the first woman nominated twice for Best Director. Her first nomination for her 1993 film, The Piano. This long list of nominations (the most of any film this year) shows just how magnificent this film is.
I implore you to try to watch The Power of the Dog in a theater or in a completely undistracted environment. A casual viewer who puts on this film as background noise while answering emails cannot appreciate the intricate performances and filmmaking here. It is a film you need to be invested in and paying careful attention to in order to fully understand and appreciate the depths of this film. The beautiful cinematography is often zen-like, the careful, calculated moments from the actors are so telling. Very little is blatantly blurted out and so much is hidden, wrapped up in layers and nuances. It’s a wonderful, captivating film if you go into it ready to be engrossed and captivated.
“Bronco Henry told me that a man was made by patience in the odds against him.”