In the new age of streamer prestige, the subtle art of the teaser trailer is a lesson Netflix has practically perfected. The likes of Roma, The Irishman, and Mank all produced teasers that hooked you in without the need for subsequent plot-spilling previews. The teaser for writer-director Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog gifts us the same creeping anticipation, built around a menacing Benedict Cumberbatch, who does little more than whistle on the plains of the northern frontier while a terrified Kirsten Dunst dictates the tone with a single line of dialogue: “He’s just a man… only another man”. All we establish is that this man is an arsehole, and he is to be feared.
An arsehole antagonist in a western is nothing out of the ordinary, but this is no ordinary western, and Phil Burbank (Cumberbatch) is no ordinary arsehole. Things start off traditionally enough as the Burbank brothers – the other being George (Jesse Plemons) – herd cattle across 1920s Montana. They stop at an inn, and by virtue of Phil cruelly mocking the recently widowed owner Rose (Dunst) and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Campion establishes her characters with a snap before beginning the aching process of baring their souls. In rapid succession, George falls in love with Rose, marries her, and brings his new family back to the sprawling ranch he shares with his brother.
What follows is a masterclass of slow burn characterisation. As Phil torments his new relatives, drifting pointedly yet easily from Rose to Peter, his motivations steadily unfurl and evolve without handholding from Campion. The director spins an inviting rope for her audience to climb, only to frequently leave us hanging, mesmerised by her splicing of psychological torture, dark wit and deep desire, until the rope is finally complete.
As awful as he is, like all worthy antagonists Phil is fascinating and brutally funny; a salt of the earth cowboy with an Ivy League mind. Brought to life by one of Cumberbatch’s most memorable performances, Phil draws laughter laced with guilt during his encounters with Rose, whose paranoia spirals as her brother-in-law deftly takes up residency inside her head. The relationships Phil has with Rose and Peter may divide the runtime, but Dunst nails what she is given, embodying the hopeless vulnerability of a woman whose society barely recognises her, and whose husband and son seemingly cannot protect her. Though they are scarcely in the same room together, Cumberbatch and Dunst ignite each other with a burning hate that could well see both receive awards attention early next year
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The third standout is Smit-McPhee, who takes the reins as the main supporting player once Phil turns his attention to his pale, physically weak medical school student. At first, Peter’s relationship with Phil threatens to go the way of his mother’s. Phil sees something there, however. Potential. A part of himself, real or not, fixates him, and this is where Campion comes into her own as she utilises Peter as a tool for the audience to dig down into Phil’s psyche, his past, and his true nature. It is a powerful, ultimately satisfying character study that lingers in the mind upon its swift climax, just as Phil does so effortlessly to any and everyone he encounters.
Like any superior western the cinematography and score stand tall in The Power of the Dog, with director of photography Ari Wegner showcasing the wide-ranging frontier in stunning fashion. Her use of silhouettes and intimate, multi-environment frames complement Campion’s deep thematic visual sense, and several of her shots are works of art in their own right. Meanwhile, composer and longtime Paul Thomas Anderson collaborator Jonny Greenwood – no stranger to westerns following his work on There Will Be Blood – produces a subtle score that hums and throbs, purposefully tracking Phil and those around him as it rises and falls from frequent, haunting ominosity to brief, welcome tenderness.
Since the turn of the century Campion has not been a prolific filmmaker, directing only three films in 20 years while choosing to focus on the small screen during the last decade. It has been a while since 1993’s The Piano saw her triumph at the following year’s Academy Awards, where she became only the second woman nominated for Best Director and went on to win Best Screenplay. The Power of the Dog is some way to re-enter that conversation, and there is a good chance she will be there alongside her stars when the nominations are announced. Regardless, it is a gorgeous picture dripping in tension and featuring crushingly vulnerable performances. If you can see it on the big screen in advance of its Netflix release, do it. It deserves as much.
The Power of the Dog played at the Vancouver International Film Festival 2021. It will be released at Cinemas and then on Netflix later this year.