Netflix’s dense and powerful film digs into some of Westerns’ favorite themes
The 2022 Oscars ceremony is coming up on March 27, and 10 new movies are up for the Best Picture title: Belfast, CODA, Don’t Look Up, Drive My Car, Dune, King Richard, Licorice Pizza, Nightmare Alley, The Power of the Dog, and West Side Story. Each has its strengths and weaknesses, and any of them might end up winning big. In the lead-up to the Oscars, we’re making a case for why each of them might deserve to take the big prize.
WHAT’S THE MOVIE?
The Power of the Dog, directed by Jane Campion.
WHAT’S THE STORY?
In 1925 Montana, well-educated ranch owner Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) surrounds himself with sycophantic young cowboys who idolize him for his skill, knowledge, and toughness. When his quiet brother George (Jesse Plemons) marries boarding-house owner Rose (Kirsten Dunst), Phil is threatened and jealous, and he takes out his anger on Rose and her skinny, awkward son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The tensions rise and fall as Phil, Rose, and Peter all take drastic steps, some subtler than others.
WHAT’S THE CRED?
Campion is the first woman in history to be nominated for a Best Director Oscar twice. (She was previously nominated for 1993’s The Piano, which won her Best Original Screenplay, but lost the Best Director award to Steven Spielberg for Schindler’s List.) Campion has spent her career focusing on the tensions and power dynamics between men and women, with sharp, ambitious, sometimes blisteringly observed films like In The Cut, The Portrait of a Lady, and Holy Smoke. Her primary cast here is an all-star team of actors celebrated for their nuanced performances — even when they’re playing against type, as Cumberbatch is here.
WHY SHOULD IT WIN?
The Power of the Dog is a deceptively simple film — it’s easy to see it as a cut-and-dried drama about a dude who doesn’t like his brother’s new wife and gets snotty about it. But the film has layers upon layers upon layers, and the more you think about it, the more rewarding it becomes. The way Phil carefully calculates his bullying to cover up his own insecurities, the way he performs his “I’m a smelly barbarian and I like it” masculinity to put himself beyond question in the eyes of other men, and the way he recoils from Peter’s softness and vulnerability are all key to understanding the film’s deeper nuances around Phil’s sexuality and the fears that drive him.
And so is the way Peter’s confidence in his education threatens Phil, a Phi Beta Kappa Yale classics graduate who smothers his own education in an attempt to fit in among the Montana cowboy crowd. So is the way Peter’s education ultimately comes into play against Phil. The film is tremendously acted, with stunning cinematography and a typically compelling Jonny Greenwood score, but the richness of the relationships and all the things the characters are hiding or faking is what makes this movie a standout.
WHAT’S THE CATCH?
All this nuance is fairly subtle and easy to miss, particularly for viewers half-watching the movie and waiting for something exciting to happen while they multitask. It takes real effort and engagement to fully appreciate The Power of the Dog, and it’s harder to give a long, slow movie that kind of during-and-afterward engagement when it’s mixed in with a thousand other films and series in Netflix’s constant firehose of content.
ONE GREAT THING NO ONE SHOULD MISS
Dunst plays a relatively minor and ineffectual part in the narrative after her first few big scenes, but there’s a standout moment as she and George head to the ranch for the first time, after their marriage. Taking the gently baffled George off the road, she pulls out teacups so they can have a little tea party en route — a sweet but almost ridiculously effete moment that marks how out of place she’s going to be on Phil’s ranch. And yet it’s obvious how much she’s trying to face her own fears about heading to a new place, and how touched George is by her little game. It’s a quiet scene, but an emotional one that’s heavy with portent and unspoken need.
WHERE DO I WATCH IT?
The Power of the Dog is available to stream on Netflix. For the other nominees, check out our streaming guide to every 2022 Oscar nominee.
Previously: Why Don’t Look Up deserves to win Best Picture
Next: Why West Side Story deserves to win Best Picture