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Benedict Cumberbatch plays Phil in "The Power of the Dog." Photo courtesy of IMDb.

REVIEW: 'The Power of the Dog' seethes with deliciously soft tension

Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog'' is a masterful and visually rich film. The story, sometimes a slow build, is propelled along by incredible acting and interesting character dynamics. 

Released last November, this film has well-earned its 12 Oscar nominations. Campion made history by being the first female director to be nominated twice for the Best Director category. At the time she received her first nomination for Best Director in 1996, she was only the second woman to have ever been nominated for the award.

The movie is a tense, simmering tale of a rancher, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), and his antagonistic relationship with his brother’s new wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). 

Cumberbatch’s punchable face was used to the fullest in his performance of hyper-masculine cowboy Phil, with Cumberbatch indubitably showcasing his interesting turn from relentless cruelty to an almost pathetic affection directed toward Peter. There was something incredibly daunting and eerie in the way Phil entered a room, always with the same heavy, slow stomp and always tremendously dreadful.

Smit-McPhee’s performance as Peter was wonderful. He leaves the viewer oscillating between sympathy and disturbance at the drop of a hat. Dunst was also fantastic, as usual. She was able to inject a fairly straightforward tragic heroine role with detail and nuance.

Seeing the way the ensemble played off of each other, however, is what made this film most work for me. Smit-McPhee and Cumberbatch were able to build an enthralling push-and-pull power dynamic that worked greatly to the final third of the film’s advantage. I also quite liked Jesse Plemmons’ kind-hearted, if emasculated, portrayal of George, Phil’s brother and Rose’s husband.

Ari Wegner’s cinematography was breathtaking. I appreciate that this film was muted in color without looking dusty. Alongside the beautiful, sprawling shots of the Western landscape, there were some gorgeous close-up shots, and I found myself rewinding to glimpse particularly eye-catching compositions once more.

The score was absolutely splendid. Composed by Radiohead bassist Jonny Greenwood, it was a perfect compliment to the film and helped to create a swelling undertone of tension throughout the film without ever boiling over.

The film feels almost subversive in its inaction. In a genre of gunslingers and bandits, here is a nuanced drama in which little of material substance happens on screen. The subversion doesn’t end there, of course. This film has a lot of interesting things to say about masculinity, sexuality and power, softly murmuring under the surface.

Make no mistake, “The Power of the Dog” is a lush treat, demanding a careful audience and nuanced examination.

Zara Roy is the news editor at the Daily Lobo. She can be contacted at or on Twitter @zarazzledazzle

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