Movie Review: “Power of the Dog” captures loneliness and rage


Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank in “Power of the Dog.” Photo courtesy of Netflix.

Cattle ranching is hard work: It requires a great deal of physical strength, as well as knowledge and expertise. A rancher has to know how to handle a horse and how to raise cows. They have to know how to treat hides to make leather and how to butcher meat. 

One sick cow can kill a whole herd, and the rancher, if they are not careful. Ranching is a lonely vocation, especially in the Montana grasslands. It is a lawless country, where the rancher is king. 

In the film, “The Power of the Dog”, it’s 1925 and Phil Burbank and his brother George meet Rose Gordan, played by Kirsten Dunst, and her teenage son Peter. Rose has recently been widowed, but soon falls in love with George, and, after they marry, Rose and Peter move to the ranch. 

Peter makes intricate flowers out of cut paper to put on his father’s grave. Phil ridicules Peter for making them, and tells George, played by Jesse Plemons, that Rose only wants him for his money. Phil has made enemies with everyone, especially Peter. Up at the Montana ranch, there is no avoiding him, suspense is pulled taut like cowhide rope as Phil closes in. 

Jane Campion’s new film is anti-western, showing the cowboy hero as the monster he really is. Benedict Cumberbatch, typically underwhelming, actually turns in one of the best performances of the year as Phil Burbank. Phil is a man haunted by the past, who uses his masculinity as a shield. There are several scenes of Phil alone, where this performance really shines. While Phil herds cattle, cuts leather, and bathes, Cumberbatch is able to capture the loneliness and rage at his core.  

Campion is a master of the cinematic language. She knows how to tell a historical story that feels modern, as shown in her last film, “Bright Star”, about the poet John Keats, and her Palme d’Or winner “The Piano”. 

She knows that the camera, the performances, and the score by Jonny Greenwood will tell the message she is trying to convey. It works— the tension is always just under the surface. 

“The Power of the Dog” is rated R. It is now playing in theaters, and is available to stream on Netflix.