‘The Power of the Dog’ Review: A Different Kind of Western That Makes an Impact

The Power of the Dog is already making an impact leading up to awards season, and it absolutely deserves it. This is the best kind of movie to head into awards season, with far more substance than typical awards-bait fare. The Power of the Dog is filled with incredible performances, and a story worth telling.

Let me say at the outset, I’ve never been a fan of Westerns. They represent everything wrong with the myths we in North America tell ourselves. It’s colonialism made into movies, while glossing over the very real genocide committed against the Indigenous peoples of this land. To cap it all off, they’re often full of sexism and male fantasies of damaging masculinity. The Power of the Dog, however, is a different take on this narrative, brought together spectacularly by director Jane Campion.

Fans are fortunate to be right in the middle of the apex of Benedict Cumberbatch’s career. Coming off of his performances in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, and Marvel’s What If…? and most recently, Spider-Man: No Way Home. He is set to take his place as the leader of the Avengers with his second solo Marvel entry, Doctor Strange In the Multiverse of Madness in 2022. In The Power of the Dog, he plays Phil Burbank, a perfectly diabolical rancher set on ruining the lives of his brother’s wife and her son. This is the perfect role for Cumberbatch, and the depth of this character is perfect for an actor of Cumberbatch’s caliber.

Photo Credit: Netflix

Kristen Dunst starred alongside real-life partner Jesse Plemons, and their natural and unique chemistry was an asset to the film. Dunst’s character Rose was such a brilliant character study. The tracking of this character’s descent into mental illness and addiction after being gas-lit by a man was so timeless, and was incredibly compelling in Dunst’s capable hands. Plemons was the ever-dutiful husband, although his face and persona naturally lend him to fantastic villains. This was a change of pace for him, and he played it beautifully.

Kodi Smit-McPhee of X-Men fame absolutely shone as Peter Gordon, a lost young man caught up in the drama of his mother’s new family. A clear outsider, it was painful watching just how much he didn’t fit in. Anyone who’s had the experience of having their very identity mocked and being excluded will feel this performance on a visceral level. His attraction to the medical profession completely fits with what is set up for this character, and his journey to find the answers of how everything fits together at the most basic level just makes so much sense. 

Photo Credit: Netflix

The psychological depths that this story goes into is astounding. Far more questions are raised than are answered, and the tension built through the story is among the best in recent memory. Motivations are questioned, and characters are entangled in progressively more complicated interpersonal affairs. So much is left unsaid and left to the imagination, and viewers are left to fill in blanks and the final revelations fit so perfectly and will no doubt leave viewers satisfied after following along on this epic journey.

The esthetics of this movie are unmatched, and the gorgeous shots of nature only add to the vastness and richness of the story. This was cinematographer’s Ari Wegner coming into her own, and she is already being recognized as she should. The breathtaking beauty of New Zealand lends itself well to a substitute for the myth that became the American western frontier. The setting is a character in itself, with its own secrets and nuances that mirror the characters’ entanglements.

The Power of the Dog is Benedict Cumberbatch at his absolute best, and is a delightful twist on a film genre that is best left squarely in the past. It’s a story that enthralls from beginning to end, and is a worthy movie to be considered this awards season.

The Power of the Dog is available to stream on Netflix. 

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