“Charismatic rancher Phil Burbank inspires fear and awe in those around him. When his brother brings home a new wife and her son, Phil torments them until he finds himself exposed to the possibility of love.”

Director: Jane Campion
Writers: Jane Campion, Thomas Savage
Staring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee
Release Date: December 1, 2021
Where To Watch: Netflix

Based on a novel written by Thomas Savage, The Power Of The Dog is a western drama taking place in the wealthy plains of Montana around 1925. Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a charismatic asshole (for the lack of a better word) who embodies what it means to be a true cowboy and man of the land. He has a brother George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) who is the opposite; he is quiet, refined and compromising. A tenuous brotherly relationship is further stretched out George marries Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), bringing her and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) into the Burbank life and homestead. 

The tense nature of The Power Of The Dog is looming throughout the story, but it has inflection points that act as critical markers on each character’s timelines. In the opening minutes we get introduced to the rudeness of Phil through his berating and belittling of Pete. There is also the brutally awkward dinner scene where Rose is too nervous to play tunes on the piano for her new husband George and their invited high profile guests.

The same variable in each of these two troubling scenarios for the two Gordon family members. Mr. Phil Burbank. He torments Pete in the restaurant, teases him for his hobbies and then burns his artwork. At the dinner, Phil walks in late, talks demingly to Rose and then walks away whistling the same tune she had been practicing to rub it in her face. Phil is the toxic spoon that stirs the demoralizing drink.

Benedict Cumberbatch is undeniably the best part of The Power Of The Dog. He is detestable as Phil. His all-to-cool exterior and hard nose my-way-or-the-highway mentality rubs everyone the wrong way. Phil thinks he knows best because he believes that he learned from the best. Director and writer Jane Campion unfurls Phil’s moral backbone with non-verbal exposition.

The Power Of The Dog has to be nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2022 Academy Awards. If it is not, it’ll be a massive snub. Campion is able to take the words of Thomas Savage and transpose them to screen in hauntingly subtle ways. Characters are spilling out details about themselves without even speaking. Pasts are illuminated by a glare or a seemingly odd action. Futures are told with clever foreshadowing and intentions are dripped out with hints intravenously.

The best illustration of Campion’s compelling power to create mystery from the seemingly unimportant comes in the setting up for the final twist. The shocking twist of Phil’s death comes without much fanfare, but the way his demise unfolds should be heralded.

The beauty in the film’s final 20 minutes is that it spells nothing out for the audience. It gives you all the visual hints you need to understand what’s really happening, but the end result and overall arch of attack is kept hidden by shadows. Campion’s storytelling story mimics Pete’s own deadly clever plan. Think about the innocuous moments in the movie like Pete putting the gloves on when he sees the dead cow on his solo ride, or when we see him wearing the cowboy boots Phil said he should be wearing. Directly compare those two events to when Phil’s bloody hands are shown uncovered in the water washing the cowhide to finish the rope and when Pete hides the rope responsible for Phil’s demise under the bed while wearing the white sneakers he obviously prefers. It was all a ruse. It was always about Phil.

From the beginning of The Power Of The Dog, there are clues and cues for what is going to take place later in the movie. There are early mentions of Anthrax infecting the livestock and Phil is heard screaming for his cow handlers to stay far away from it. Once Pete discovers that Phil is gay and most likely had a sexual relationship with Bronco Henry, he uses this knowledge as ammunition. Pete drags Phil on a fake parental & romantic type of relationship, drawing from the reverence that Phil still has for Bronco Henry. In the end Pete seizes his moment and inflicts death upon Phil by poisoning him with anthrax directly. It is a masterclass of justified malevolence.

Pete goes through with his plan to kill Phil because he sees how his domineering and frankly disdainful demeanor is affecting his mother. Rose has been sent off the deep end and becomes reliant on alcohol to even get through the day. By killing Phil, Pete is releasing Rose from the lasso that Phil had metaphorically thrown around her happiness and freedom. She is no longer confined to her room and the bottle. This is illuminated in the end of the movie with George and Rose embracing in the open in the driveway and Pete is looking at them through the window with a smile on his face.

Come the end of The Power Of The Dog, there may not be many smiles from people viewing the movie. It is a hard-to-watch drama at times that rewards patience, but the payoff is equivalent to passing a test in high school you thought you had for sure flunked. When you grasp onto every little string that Campion is pulling with her directorial abilities, you will never want to let go. 

Power Of The Dog is a shoe-in for four Academy Awards nominations in my mind: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor (Benedict Cumberbatch). I could also see awards for Best Score, Best Supporting Actor (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and Best Cinematography. Also according to the consensus, Kirsten Dunst is also in the running for Best Supporting Actress.

Power Of The Dog deserves all the praise it will receive. It may be, if not, the best movie of 2021.

Power Of The Dog is streaming on Netflix.

POWER RATING: A- (4.0/5 Stars)

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