REVIEW: ‘Power of the Dog’ is a well crafted character study that digs deep

The concept of masculinity is explored and deconstructed in this new Netflix feature, set where the prairies meet the Rocky Mountains.

“Power of the Dog,” directed by Jane Campion, takes place during the 1920s in Montana. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Phil Burbank in the film, a tough cattle rancher with a rough personality.

While Phil seems mystified by the life of a rancher in the western side of the nation, his brother George (Jesse Plemons) is less fascinated by the cowboy career and has ambitions of settling down. He does just that when he meets and later marries a restaurant owner named Rose (Kirsten Dunst). The film then follows how Phil often finds himself at odds with the rest of his family.

Like the Great Northern Railway trains that once rumbled through Montana, “The Power of the Dog” takes some time to get going. The movie as a whole is a slow burn, but the start of the film especially drags.

As the film goes on, though, and more is revealed about the characters, the drama ramps up and the level of intrigue gradually increases. As a whole, it’s a unique, thought-provoking western drama.

The way layers of Phil’s character are peeled back, revealing new sides and complexities about the rancher, is  superb. There are several scenes that are masterfully done and get so much across with little dialogue needed.

One example is a scene where Phil aggressively polishes a saddle, clearly expressing frustration. Moments like these really power the movie.

PowerofDogBlog
Courtesy Netflix.

What the film builds to and how it concludes is especially powerful and poetic, and gives a viewer a new look on the movie as a whole. Understanding the characters on a deeper level at the end of the film makes for a complete, rich experience.

In addition to Campion’s direction (and writing), what makes much of this work is Cumberbatch. While first appearing as somewhat out of place in a western role, Cumberbatch quickly pushes away any notion that he’s not up to the task. He plays a complex character and manages to capture a lot of what the film is trying to explore with the rancher.

What’s disappointing is how the film treats its other characters. Rose has a subplot that’s interesting, but not as developed as Phil’s arc. George, meanwhile, doesn’t get nearly enough screentime.

Both Dunst and Plemons are talented performers and they’re quite good here, one just wishes to have seen more of them in “Power of the Dog.” Unfortunately, they’re somewhat sidelined.

A performer who does get a good deal of screentime and makes the most of it is Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays Rose’s son. He is quite good, and holds his own in scenes where his character interacts with Phil. His performance really adds to the movie’s third act.

“Power of the Dog” also boasts impeccable cinematography by Ari Wegner. The camera captures the natural beauty of the open western wilderness and homesteads, while also displaying the roughneck lifestyle of many of its characters. Another aspect making the movie work is the music, with an intense and at times, uncomfortable score.

This is a movie that does take some time to truly get into and it can leave viewers a bit cold. Plus, some of the characters could have been featured in more of a balanced way. However, so much of the filmmaking is exceptionally well done and as the movie goes on, it gets better and better. 4.35 out of 5.

Author: Matthew Liedke

Journalist and film critic in Minnesota. Graduate of Rainy River College and Minnesota State University in Moorhead. Outside of movies I also enjoy sports, craft beers and the occasional video game.

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