Warning: This article contains major The Power of the Dog spoilers. Don’t read it if you haven’t yet watched the movie!
When Kodi Smit-McPhee first appears in The Power of the Dog—the new Jane Campion drama that is now streaming on Netflix—he is a picture-perfect definition of the phrase “a gentle spirit.” As Peter Gordon, an effeminate teenage boy with a lisp, Smit-McPhee spends his early screentime doing things like carefully constructing artificial flowers for his late father’s gravesite, or politely waiting tables at his mother’s inn. His slim, delicate frame looks like it could be blown away by a strong gust of wind. His sunken face is delicate and earnest. His wide eyes shimmer with kindness, or, when he is slighted, undisguised hurt.
And yet, by the film’s end, you will be convinced that this sweet-natured, tender ghost boy has committed a murder in cold blood. You won’t even question it. That’s just how good Smit-McPhee’s performance is. Despite the many big names in the cast—who all deliver awards-worthy performances too, no doubt—the secret weapon of The Power of the Dog is Smit-McPhee.
Based on the 1967 novel of the same name by Thomas Savage, The Power of the Dog tells the story of George and Phil Burbank, two brothers who own a ranch in Montana in 1925. While George Burbank (played by Jesse Plemons) is kind and mild-mannered, his brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is volatile, unrefined, and cruel. When George marries a local inn owner named Rose (Kirsten Dunst), Phil—feeling abandoned by his brother—lashes out at his new sister-in-law and her effeminate teenage son, Peter (Smit-McPhee). Phil tortures Rose especially, driving her to alcoholism.
The core conflict of the movie plays out in the scenes between Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee. At first, Cumberbatch is completely in control. McPhee is left to react to Phil’s ruthless mocking when the two men first meet in Rose’s inn. But ever so gradually, the balance of power begins to shift. After Peter returns home from school for the summer—where he is studying to become a doctor—he discovers Phil’s stash of nude photos of men. Then he sees Phil bathing naked with a handkerchief that belonged to “Bronco Henry,” the mentor that Phil often speaks highly of. We’re not explicitly told what conclusions Peter draws from these discoveries, but we can make a reasonable guess—Phil is a gay man, and Bronco Henry was his lover.
Something changes after this incident. Peter no longer fears Phil—in fact, he perhaps understands Phil better than anyone—and Smit-McPhee lets that play out on his face. Phil extends a gesture of friendship to Peter, by offering to braid him a rope and teach him how to use a lasso before Peter returns to school. Peter thanks him with a smile, and replies, “Well, that won’t be very long now, Phil.”
It’s a perfectly innocent, polite thing to say, but something about Smit-McPhee’s delivery—equipped with a small, secretive smile—feels threatening. To his mother’s dismay, Peter spends more and more time with his Uncle Phil, learning to ride and accompanying him on expeditions into the mountains. Smit-McPhee’s poker face rarely slips, and when it does, it’s to offer a deliberate glimpse of what’s to come. It’s the kind of acting you’ll want to watch and rewatch, searching for clues, and you’ll find them. By the time the film’s twist ending is revealed, you won’t need it spelled out for you—it’s all there on Smit-McPhee’s face.
The Australian actor, who is 25, was perhaps previously best known as Nightcrawler in the recent X-Men films. Smit-McPhee has also previously gained some attention for his roles in the films Romulus, My Father and Let Me In, both of which earned him some minor awards nominations. But The Power of the Dog feels like McPhee’s chance to become a household name. Campion’s film is already swimming in awards buzz, and while McPhee is not at the forefront of that conversation, he really ought to be. If that performance doesn’t deserve a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, then what does?
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