In a Montana town in the 1920s, brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) live together and share ownership of a cattle ranch. The former is a tyrant who takes pride in his education, having gone to college. He looks down on those around him and lays traps in conversations that force interlocutors to admit ignorance. When George gets married, Phil’s sadism zeroes in on his brother’s wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
Initially, the viewer is set up to sympathise with George, Rose and Peter, all of whom are victims of Phil’s needless cruelty. As the plot progresses, each of the characters’ own flawed behaviours – be it alcoholism, animal abuse or defenceless passivity – make it difficult to sustain this emotional engagement. Without being supplied moments of redemption, one can only pick sides with the lesser evil in the subliminal war being fought on the ranch.
The Power of the Dog evokes faint memories of Slow West in that it is a steadily paced Western, starring Smit-McPhee alongside a ginger-bearded UK actor playing a rough American.
With Burbank, Cumberbatch delivers one of the most despicable, vile characters to be featured in Netflix’s assortment of films (and this includes no shortage of serial killer portraits). The actor’s accent and mannerisms as a cowboy are surprisingly persuading, however his performance overshadows those of his collaborators. Dunst appears to be struggling to revert to form; it’s not only her character that has a continuous air of misplacement.
New Zealand director Jane Campion’s first feature film in 12 years is a very atmospheric production tackling complex concepts of masculinity, warped desire and loneliness. Nonetheless, as the the audience are not given sufficient motivation to feel for the characters and care about their fate, the runtime of over two hours makes itself noticeable.
The Power of the Dog is released on Netflix on 1st November 2021.
For further information about the event visit the Venice Film Festival website here.