Acclaimed indie filmmaker Jane Campion sees her first feature release in 12 years with The Power of the Dog, which has also received perhaps the most eyes on one of her projects since 1993’s The Piano, because, you know, niche arthouse flicks are now given $30 million budgets and transmitted directly to every household across the country.
The Netflix movie (with the requisite one-week theatrical release in order to receive awards contention) stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank, an abrasively imperious ranch owner in 1925 Montana, and his gentler brother George (Jesse Plemons), who cross paths with a widowed innkeeper, Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), and her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Upon first meeting them, Phil relentlessly bullies and belittles the effeminate Peter. But George becomes instantly smitten by Rose and soon the two get married, much to the inexplicable chagrin of Phil, whose dispositions can only ever be assumed.
The Power of the Dog isn’t really so much a Western so much as it is a drama set in the Old West. Not a single gun is fired, horses are only ridden briefly, and there’s barely even a side to be picked. The setting feels more Badlands or Bonnie and Clyde with its broodiness and insouciant curiosity than it does Shane or True Grit, or even Dances With Wolves. Likewise, this isn’t a film that tries to blend genres, because there are no genres to blend.
The mercurial Phil is a much more challenging role for Cumberbatch than his previous effort from this year as the affable title character in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain. Here, the actor is asked to wear his emotions and thoughts less on his sleeve and more buried within his searing glare. He lashes out unfairly and unprovoked at others. Though visibly agitated, we can only venture to guess why. And it’s that very mystery that gives this film anything worth following, albeit a riddle that never satisfies in its resolution.
Plemons, a master of nuanced containment, delivers another sturdy performance as Phil’s kind, soft-spoken brother. As an actor, Plemons does the things that won’t get him many awards but will help serve the film and actors around him. If nothing else, the performances in this film are dynamic from top to bottom, despite the fact that there’s so much apathy for these characters it’s difficult to truly become moved by their story.
The character are all left-of-center, each seeming to have some sort of mental illness – an oddity that Campion keeps curiously undercooked. And since they all operate at a distance, never facing relatable (or any) turning points in their development, it’s difficult to look at them as any more than blank, unsympathetic chess pieces.
Unfamiliar with the source material, I had initially thought the film might be going down the Of Mice and Men route, considering the flawed, sharp-tongued Phil and his simpler, kinder brother, George. And yet, it’s really unclear what Campion is trying to achieve here, both plot-wise and thematically, as she touches on motifs with subtleties that are more fitting amidst 1925’s tacit introversions than they are for a modern audience who would have wanted them to be more poetically revealed.
For a while, we get an interesting view of the crosshairs of the educated upper class and the dusty ranch hand life during a time when that intersection was much more complex than it is today. We come to find out that Phil has rejected his high-society upbringing for a more earthy milieu. But then, this 15-minute digression only turns out to be seasoning for an intended character study that paints Phil as either an underachiever or someone with a hunger for real living, but never both.
Attempting to achieve some sort of trajectory of There Will Be Blood, with definitive story hubs followed by interstitial meandering only serving to teach us about its villainous protagonist, The Power of the Dog trades in the uneasiness evoked by director Paul Thomas Anderson for the restlessness gifted to an audience who could only wish for something as exciting as the plodding 2007 Best Picture nominee – a slow burn in its own right.
Campion’s movie hits all the technical marks, with an effectively dissonant, tonally conflicted score by Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood that’s reminiscent of the tense music from Midsommar, and beautiful cinematography from Ari Wegner, who uses natural-looking light for his exteriors and landscapes which, when shown, are colored cleanly. He maintains the melancholy tints typical with many neo-Westerns, though the dimmed sunlight appears to be coming from the clouds themselves rather than from any correction in post-production.
Aloof and sedated, The Power of the Dog is a difficult film to get enrapt in. It seems to be in a constant state of subtext and taut moods rather than actual story beats, striving for the same enigma of all the gloomy neo-Westerns of today. But here, Campion’s obsession with the art of suggestion only renders the pretentious dialogue as laughably self-important by default. There’s a difference between mysterious and uneventful. Here, any relevant context just floats around in the ether, never landing for us to see. And so, the already-directionless tensions serving as the foundation for the entire film remain boringly undisclosed.