Montana, 1925. Ranchers Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons) live in a sprawling mansion with their cattle stock and fellow cowboys. When George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), she and her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) move into the mansion and upset the order that's existed in their lives, causing tension and long-held secrets to bubble to the surface.
Jane Campion has made a career out of work that is layered with mystery, psychological depth, and dissections of gender roles and sexuality. Whether it's 'The Piano' or, more recently, 'Top of the Lake', Campion is able to get under the skin of her audience and needle things out in a way that's not always what you'd expect. 'The Power of the Dog' presents itself initially as a Western with a flash of drama and mystery to it, helped along by Jonny Greenwood's ominous score that's reminiscent of 'There Will Be Blood'. By its end, there's much more going on.
Campion's direction, her choice of lighting and shadow, and the nuanced performances from everyone initially sets you up to think that it's going to be some kind of a mystery or even a kind of ghost story, but it slowly burns these away to reveal a complex, nuanced story about rejection and acceptance. So often in 'The Power of the Dog', you find that the camera is saying more about someone's state of mind than the characters themselves are. Benedict Cumberbatch's wild-eyed cowboy rancher is shot in handheld, while the calm and collected Smit-McPhee moves and walks in perfect tracking shots. Kirsten Dunst's unravelling mother is shot at a distance, drowning herself in alcohol and crying fitfully, while Jesse Plemons' prim and proper businessman looks completely ill at ease with his surroundings, even though it is his very home.
So often is the case that Oscar-adjacent movies tend to be stunning central performances surrounded by, at best, mediocre movies. There's plenty of examples - 'The Theory of Everything', 'Green Book', and in this cycle, 'King Richard'. There's much more going in 'The Power of the Dog' than mere clip-friendly moments. Benedict Cumberbatch is giving the performance of his career to date. While he's known for having a tendency to exaggerate in some performances, here you can tell that he's carefully considering each tic and each movement. His character is undoubtedly callous and cruel, but as the story unfurls, we see that he's basically a walking contradiction. Even the dynamic he has with his on-screen brother Jesse Plemons feels at odds with everything else. Chalk and cheese doesn't even begin to cover it.
In comparison with Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst's performance is far more vulnerable, human, and made up of small scenes of utter humiliation. There's a harrowing moment when, during a stuffy dinner with her new-in laws, she's pestered into playing the piano and finds herself completely flummoxed at the keys. 'The Power of the Dog' is made up of these scenes of quiet devastation that then slot into a whole picture that you're only able to comprehend when the credits roll. Yes, it may have taken its time to form, but when it's revealed, you understand that 'The Power of the Dog' has built itself chapter by chapter; that it was all building to that conclusion.
That makes it all the more satisfying, even if it is quite chilling in its sentiment.
'The Power of the Dog' is showing in select cinemas from Friday, 19 November. It arrives on Netflix on 1 December.