To see the performances of Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Kodi Smit-McPhee in Jane Campion’s bruising western “The Power of the Dog” is to see all Hollywood vanity of this quartet of actors stripped away. Much has been made by Cumberbatch of his fully immersed, Method-esque turn as repressed rancher Phil Burbank — including three spells of nicotine-poisoning and some scaring off of his castmates — but less so from Campion herself. In this exclusive video, courtesy of Netflix, the director breaks down the special alchemy created by her cast while filming a 1920s Montana-set Western in New Zealand.
Of Cumberbatch, Campion said, “There’s no Benedict there.” As for Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays the skittish young son of Kirsten Dunst’s character, Campion said, “Kodi is better than the character of Peter that’s written.” She’s referring to the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, which sets up an opera’s worth of psychological intrigue, sexual currents, and violence — all of which Campion compresses into the Netflix feature. The Academy Award winner (“The Piano”) just secured Best Director from the New York Film Critics Circle, with Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee also picking up Actor and Supporting Actor prizes, respectively.
“The Power of the Dog” is now streaming on Netflix. Watch an exclusive behind-the-scenes featurette below, and read this from David Ehrlich’s take on why it’s the best film of 2021:
Set on a Montana cattle ranch in 1925, Campion’s sinewy adaptation depicts a four-sided death waltz between a tortured cowboy (Benedict Cumberbatch), his softhearted brother (Jesse Plemons), the widow he marries (Kirsten Dunst), and the delicate-seeming teenage son who comes with her (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The story that unfolds from that scenario is equal parts wish fulfillment and cautionary tale, and since it’s told without a dominant point-of-view — in a way that feels almost anthropological — it’s able to be each of those things for different characters at the same time.
For all of the film’s biblical grandeur, “The Power of the Dog” never insists upon itself. There isn’t a moment in the movie that lacks vision, but the whole thing exudes a tremblingly quiet strength. Just as Savage’s plainspoken novel found the author flexing the invisible muscles he developed over a lifetime of fighting his own desire, Campion’s equally poignant film leverages repressed passion into an unexpected show of strength. “The Power of the Dog” sticks its teeth into you so fast and furtively that you may not feel the sting on your skin until after the credits roll, but the delayed bite of the film’s ending doesn’t stop it from leaving behind a well-earned scar.