Slow-creeping and devastating ‘Power of the Dog’ is one of the year’s best

The new Western from director Jane Campion and starring Benedict Cumberbatch is both in theaters and streaming on Netflix

Brad Keefe
"The Power of the Dog"

Professionally, I go into movies with an open mind. Personally, I have to admit that some movies start more in the wheelhouse of what I like.

So, when a movie that’s not in that wheelhouse ends up slowly but surely devastating me, I have to give credit where it’s due.

Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” based on the 1967 novel of the same name, is both a period film and a slow-boiling character drama. I don’t have a deep aversion to any of these aspects, but I prefer movies set in a time more relatable to an era I’ve shared, and there are notable pitfalls in translating stories from the page to the screen in terms of pacing and acts. Film’s just a different medium.

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“Power of the Dog” immediately sucked me in with its lush, big-country cinematography and another haunting soundtrack by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood. And what Campion does with both the story and one of the year’s best ensemble casts just left me gobsmacked.

Set almost a century ago in 1925 Montana, the story centers on cattle rancher brothers Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons, respectively). In the midst of a cattle drive, the brothers stay at an inn run by the widowed Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst). George is quickly taken by her gentle nature, but his brash brother Phil openly mocks Rose’s teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), for his effeminate mannerisms.

Soon Rose and George marry, bringing an antagonistic and often cruel Phil into Rose’s home life as Peter departs for medical school.

Aussie director Campion has crafted her best film in the decades since she made “The Piano,” and if she doesn’t get an Oscar nomination for this, the Academy should be even more ashamed than they should be for the fact that Campion is just the second of just seven women ever nominated in the Best Director category.

It’s not just the lushness — and sometimes coldness — she brings to the look of the film. Or the masterful pacing for a movie that burns so slowly (it’s an impressive feat that a film can be this slow-moving and consistently enthralling). Campion also took this incredible cast and got nearly career-best performances from every single one of them.

Cumberbatch’s Phil is a masterwork of complexity in a character that is uncomfortably difficult to like. It’s a wholly original performance, but it calls to mind Daniel Day Lewis in “There Will Be Blood” (another movie assisted by a fantastic Greenwood soundtrack). That’s really the last performance I can think of that was on this level. But it’s also another feather in the cap of the emergent former “Friday Night Lights” star Plemmons, whose choices of roles in recent years has shown impeccable taste and craft.

Excellent support from Dunst in her best role since “Melancholia” and secret weapon Smit-McPhee make this a film that doesn’t just have one of the year’s best performances; it has four of them.

The breathtaking New Zealand scenery (standing in for Montana) makes “Power of the Dog” call for the big screen, but after a week of exclusive theatrical release, the film dropped on Netflix on Wednesday. Combined with the high-profile cast, this means a lot of people will see this art-house fare pop up in their Netflix new releases, and many will find it’s pacing and content not what they expected. I’d expect the user reviews to be mixed, to say the least.

But Campion has made a haunting and enthralling testament to the power of film that is worthy of repeat viewings. It’s one of the year’s very best, and whether you head to a theater or just hit play at home, it’s worth your time.

“The Power of the Dog”

Now playing at the Gateway Film Center and streaming on Netflix

5 stars out of 5