Warning: this review contains mild spoilers for The Power of the Dog based only on trailers and promotional materials.
Netflix’s The Power of the Dog is currently cleaning up award season. Winning the Golden Globe for best motion picture in the drama category and director Jane Campion (The Piano, Bright Star) winning the Golden Globe and Silver Lion (an award presented at the Venice Film Festival) for best director, The Power of the Dog will no doubt be up for contention at the Oscars.
Though these awards might slightly overrate The Power of the Dog, the film still delivers as a slow-burn western that lays the character groundwork fairly well. Campion’s direction is masterful as The Power of the Dog is as thematically deep as it is cinematically beautiful. Though The Power of the Dog absolutely nails its slow-burn aesthetic, the writing and pace take a hit in the film’s explosive and rushed third act that heavily relies on “overly convenient movie logic” to make its point.
Based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name, The Power of the Dog follows wealthy Montana ranchers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) Burbank as they take care of livestock and carry on the memory of their cowboy mentor Bronco Henry. As head of the ranch, Phil leads with fear and intimidation, even in his relationship with George. When George falls in love with inn owner Rose (Kirsten Dunst), he moves Rose and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) into the house. Soon after, Phil grows reluctant of Rose’s intentions and starts to torment her and Peter until he surprisingly finds a deeper emotional connection in Peter.
The film methodically pulls you along its over two-hour runtime as Campion carefully crafts each scene that oozes with symbolism. The backdrop of the plains and foothills of Dunedin, New Zealand, is gorgeous as it echoes themes of loneliness, self-reflection, and love, sprinkled with feelings of dread, exploitation, and plotting; everything is not as it seems.
These feelings are matched with the deep and nuanced characters portrayed by Cumberbatch, Dunst, and Smit-McPhee. Cumberbatch’s performance as Phil is hard to watch as he lays into Phil’s abusive and manipulative nature — a behaviour that directly affects Rose, George, and Peter throughout the film. Dunst’s acting is powerful as every second she spends with Phil, she deteriorates into a shell of a person. Though Phil may be easy to write off as the abusive “bad guy,” Phil becomes a lot more profound and nuanced once he ends up taking Peter under his wing — moving the film away from its initial
Smit-McPhee is an absolute standout in The Power of the Dog, masterfully showcasing Peter’s surface-based helpless nature along with his reserved inner power and cunning ability. The character dynamics between Phil and Peter kept me on the edge of my seat, as layer by layer, these characters become intertwined with one another.
However, as well-paced and executed as the film’s first two acts are, The Power of the Dog starts to lose steam in its final act. The last 30 minutes of The Power of the Dog are by every means explosive. Still, it feels like the film misses the mark by rushing to make its ending hit a little too conveniently, undermining the film’s initial slow burn and methodical nature. Though the conclusion did achieve a shocked reaction from me, the film did so by stilted logic, all too convenient plot devices, and conventional writing tropes that wrap the film up in a clean conventional bow.
By the end of The Power of the Dog, I felt mainly satisfied by what I watched over the course of two hours. However, I was also left wondering if the film could properly achieve its grand finale had there been an extra 15 to 30 minutes to wrap up loose ends more methodically. Though the film lays the character groundwork for something exceptional (a reason enough to watch the movie), The Power of the Dog doesn’t quite pay off to the point of expectation.