• Nate Adams

'The Power of the Dog' review: Jane Campion's sizzling western drama shows its teeth


Courtesy of Netflix

 

Her eighth feature in 30 years and first movie since 2009, Jane Campion’s brooding adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel “The Power of the Dog” is more bark than bite, showing its teeth early with a simmering pot of tension boiling until an apex is reached. Showcasing a wild west iteration of Benedict Cumberbatch at his most ghoulish and serrated with equally as memorable supporting work from Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kristen Dunst and Jesse Plemons, “The Power of the Dog'' is armed with a clear message surrounding toxic masculinity, abuse, and abandonment which Campion steers to pasture, creating a vivid landscape viewers will get lost in. One which comes alive on the big screen though most will give it a shot at home on Netflix.


Cumberbatch and Plemons play Phil and George Burbank, two successful cattle ranchers striding through the Montana countryside circa 1925. It’s a tough environment for anyone other than the mentally and physically able; Campion, who also adapted the screenplay, doesn’t settle for less. Phil is the meanest sonuvabitch in the town, a cold-hearted sourpuss unafraid of poking fun or making those around him feel uncomfortable. His brother, George, on the other hand, couldn’t be more polar opposite and, in a rather abrupt move, marries a bride named Rose Gordon (Dunst), setting off a fiery explosion of resentment and near insanity from Phil who goes to great lengths in tormenting his recently annotated sister-in-law.


Considering Phil and George have slept in the same bed for most of their adult life and breathe the cattle life, any type of minor tweak to the formula was going to cause a ruckus, and Rose sets off the flames. Especially as she brings around her son Peter (Smit-McPhee), a strange kid who dissects live rabbits in his room and someone Phil loathes more than Rose, calling him “Miss Nancy” and “Little Lord Fauntleroy.”


Cumberbatch is in rare form, channeling a sociopathic madman scared of change but won’t admit it. Phil would rather make life hell for others than succumb to it, forcing Gordon to drown herself in whisky because of the wreckage caused by the alpha-dogs. But the sooner you realize Phil has an endgame and noticeably understands in order to sustain power you must adapt to it, “The Power of the Dog” sings.


Campion marches to the beat of her own tantalizing drum and though failing to reach the highs of her most successful film “The Piano,” “The Power of the Dog” has a lot of moving pieces which mold together as Phil begins seeing the error of his ways. Watching the movie through his lens creates a bitter aftertaste, but Cumberbatch’s showiest performance to date makes it go down a little smoother.


Grade: B


THE POWER OF THE DOG is now streaming on Netflix.


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