‘The Power of the Dog’ is the psychological horror the western genre needs – SCAD District

Written by Sarah Ralph, Photo Courtesy of Netflix

Netflix’s newest film, “The Power of the Dog,” premiered in the Southeast on Tuesday, October 26, at none other than the SCAD Savannah Film Festival. The festival’s students and patrons even got to meet one of the star-studded cast, Kodi Smit-McPhee, as he accepted the Discovery Award from SCAD ahead of the film’s debut. While this movie has been called a drama and a western, it was by far the scariest movie I saw before Halloween.

The film is set in 1925 in Montana and follows the story of the Burbank brothers, Phil and George, played by award-winning actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemmons. The two brothers are very different from each other. Phil is a filthy cattle rancher who epitomizes the definition of toxic masculinity. Whereas George is a refined and distinguished gentleman who is visually a well-groomed and wealthy man. The problem between the brothers, however, does not come from their own relationship but from George’s new marriage.

While this western lacks the extremely long uninterrupted eye contact and midday gun-drawn dead ends we know from the genre, the film tackles the harsh and ruthless realities of mental warfare. Cumberbatch mercilessly tortures the character of Kirsten Dunst Rose and her son Peter (Smit-Mcphee) throughout the film. So much so that their most annoying and suspenseful fights have absolutely no dialogue. This role is a whole new direction for Cumberbatch and it blends in perfectly with the role of absolute worst brother-in-law in movie history.

This film is also a complete overhaul of writer and director Jane Campion. Best known for its predominantly female cast and stories such as “The Piano” and “The Portrait of a Lady”. Campion dives head first into a male-dominated cast and genre to tackle the subject of toxic masculinity. Since its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, critics and fans around the world have raved about the film’s great chances of winning Oscar gold this awards season.

The film is visually stimulating. Cinematography alone deserves all the film awards to date. The film was not shot on location in Montana but from Campion’s home country of New Zealand. Rolling hills and barren landscapes perfectly illustrate the picturesque isolation of the American Wild West. Color grading and lighting artistically captures the rich, overwhelming dark graininess of the Burbank estate. Each frame is a gothic horror brought to life.

Plus, it’s impossible to tackle the horror of this movie without discussing the creepy soundtrack as well. Much like “Once Upon a Time in the West”, Phil is very similar to the Harmonica Man. His ominous whistle and haunting banjo playing hint at his impending presence above petrified Rose and Peter. Always looking at them through a microscopic lens to dissect each of their insecurities driving them both completely insane. Cumberbatch and Dunst don’t even have to be in the same room for his menacing presence to trigger a panic attack for her. Campion’s lack of dialogue in these scenes is truly masterful. The music alone is more powerful than any dialogue that could have been exchanged between the two characters. Overall, my biggest regret was that the movie wasn’t labeled as the horror thriller that it so clearly is.

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