THE POWER OF THE DOG is directed by Jane Campion. It’s based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage. It stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie, Genevieve Lemon, Keith Carradine, and Frances Conroy. The film will get a limited theatrical release on November 17, 2021, followed by a Netflix release on December 1, 2021.
In the 1920s, brothers Phil and George Burbank work in the cattle business, but the twosome couldn’t be more different, with George a soft-spoken man smitten with the beautiful widow and single mother Rose, while Phil as an intelligent and articulate man at home with his nose in a book or doing the dirty work on their cattle ranch. As the relationship between George and Rose grows, Rose finds herself depressed and finding solace in alcohol as Phil forms a bond of sorts with Rose’s son Peter, teaching the boy to ride and sharing stories of Bronco Henry, the man who taught Phil everything he knows.
Having just watched THE POWER OF THE DOG, I’m still absorbing it and I find myself not quite sure what to make of the film. There’s very little traditional plot progression, as the movie instead opts to be a slow-paced character study. The movie never quite finds its footing as it tries to juggle too many characters and plot elements, yet it still manages to provide some beautiful Western scenery and cinematography along with some strong moments from the cast.
If there’s one thing you can praise about THE POWER OF THE DOG, it’s the casting. The true standout player here is the always entertaining Benedict Cumberbatch (DOCTOR STRANGE, THE IMITATION GAME) as the rugged-yet-cultured Phil Burbank, a man of the West lost in changing times, cultured and educated but still an old-fashioned cowboy who wants to pass along what he knows. His relationships with everyone in the film are as uneasy as can be, which makes for some of the movie’s strongest dramatic content. Scenes he shares with Kodi Smit-McPhee (X-MEN APOCALYPSE, DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES) are the best in the movie, with the two going from animosity to a tight-knit pair.
Not to be outdone by the other cast members are Jesse Plemons (GAME NIGHT, HOSTILES) as Phil’s soft-spoken brother George, and Kirsten Dunst (SMALL SOLDIERS, SPIDER-MAN) as his single mother love interest. While they’re never as interesting or appealing to watch as Cumberbatch’s Phil, there’s no denying it’s an expertly cast film. We even get the likes of Keith Carradine and Thomasin McKenzie in supporting roles.
No portrait of the West would be complete without beautiful cinematography, and the work from Ari Wegner here doesn’t fail to please. One thing that sets THE POWER OF THE DOG apart is its 1920s setting, which introduces modern cities and automobiles into a rugged Western setting in transition. While I do wish more had been done with the modern-ish elements of the production, I won’t deny this film looks absolutely beautiful.
However, the production does come up short in some integral areas. While I was happy to see Kirsten Dunst in a film again, her character is wasted (both figuratively and literally) because there’s no context to her downfall and depression as she comes an alcoholic of sorts. She gets some good scenes, but it feels like half a story on her part and nothing more.
Thomasin McKenzie is wasted in what equates to not much more than a glorified cameo. The movie, particularly in its latter moments, comes dangerously close to transforming into BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN or CALL ME BY YOUR NAME, though this never quite comes to fruition. Either way, the ending feels frustratingly rushed. The pacing and the inability of the film to stick with a core story, instead trying to pull of an impossible juggling act, means it isn’t likely to resonate with mainstream viewers. It’s likely a slower-moving film than people will want to watch, though I won’t deny that when it shines, it does shine brightly.
THE POWER OF THE DOG is a hit-and-miss affair on account of its slow pacing and scattershot approach involving too many characters and subplots, with many lacking the development they need. But the casting is aces, with another award-worthy performance of Benedict Cumberbatch and some gorgeous cinematography of a changing landscape in history, as the West began transitioning to the modern world. This film won’t be for everyone (mainstream audiences might not make it past the first half hour on account of the pacing) but those who give it a change will see it as a worthy effort, even if they don’t find themselves wanting to rush back to it later. Moderately recommended.