MOVIE REVIEW: “The Power of the Dog” stars Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game, Doctor Strange), Jesse Plemons (The Irishman , Battleship ), Kirsten Dunst (Midnight Special, Spider-Man ), and Kodi Smit-McPhee (Slow West, The Road). It is written and directed by Jane Campion (Bright Star, The Piano).
Based on a book, this story follows a hardened rancher named Phil Burbank (Cumberbatch) who instills fear and hatred in those around him, especially when his brother (Plemons) brings home a new wife (Dunst) and her strange son (Smit-McPhee).
As we inch closer and closer to the 2022 Academy Awards, I find myself scrambling to see the final Best Picture nominees I have yet to see. Which brings us to “The Power of the Dog,” a Netflix feature that I would have never known about had it not been nominated. And the fact that it’s been discussed as the potential front-runner of the pack leaves me all the more confused.
It’s not every day that we get a western. They are a dying breed of films as there is not enough interest for big companies to put them out. Somehow, this one got off the ground, but I assume it had something to do with the status of Jane Campion and the easygoing Netflix, who will take a stab at any property they can get their hands on. What perplexed me most was how Benedict Cumberbatch was chosen to lead this one; he’s a brilliant actor, but I would have never figured the Brit would take up the horse and spurs.
What’s “The Power of the Dog” about? Good question. There’s not necessarily a story to it, but rather a set of characters who have their own issues to deal with. The center of it all is Cumberbatch’s Phil Burbank, who is embittered to high society and wants to live out the rancher lifestyle the way his fallen hero (another rancher who taught him what he knows) did. He treats everyone around him like garbage, including his brother and new sister-in-law, who has a son he deems a pansy. As the film progresses, we see just how attached Phil is to the old ways of living, and how his attitude and personality affect the lives of those around him.
The performances in this are top-notch. Campion came in swinging, choosing an ensemble that is worth seeing. Cumberbatch stands out in the pack, but everyone else shines nonetheless. Set against beautiful mountain vistas and western landscapes, I enjoyed taking in the scenery of some of this film. The cinematography can waver (interior shots aren’t that notable), but it fits the style of the piece where it focuses more on character moments than arthouse shots. Watching this late at night, I figured I would split my viewing of it in half; first half at night, second half in the morning. But before I knew it, I found myself staying up late into the AMs to finish this thing. Would I consider that a high mark for the feature? Potentially. Though I can’t really put my finger on it as to why I was invested, as the movie as a whole isn’t that remarkable.
My favorite kind of films are character studies. Ones where the priority rests solely on the development of a person than an unraveling of a tale. What I find to be difficult about “The Power of the Dog” is the characters are unique (and kind of weird) enough to keep me watching, but I didn’t find myself invested in them. Much of what happens in this left me scratching my head, as the drama that unfolds doesn’t really excite or progress or make much sense (in some areas). A man’s actions cause great consequences, but it’s only in minute moments that I saw something interesting take place. The twist of it all is cool to see, but the means of getting there left me puzzled. Why would Phil suddenly want to warm up to Peter? One could make an assumption, but his shift was still sudden and wasn’t that motivated. And that’s what a great deal of this story feels like; as it if is wandering about until it lands at a destination. Which I guess is the secret sauce of the Oscars, given how “Nomadland” won last year’s Best Picture.
“The Power of the Dog” holds quite a few chips on the table. The performances are great, as are the landscapes. Beauty is captured in some moments, and there is some development moments of characters that keep me in front of the screen, but at the end of the day I wasn’t that impacted. It’s not all that memorable of a story, and with it being a western, I would’ve wanted something a bit more gripping or grandiose. There’s wonder to be found in the quiet moments (and this one has a lot of quiet moments), though most of them are insignificant in this picture. It’s an alright film, just not best picture worthy. FINAL SCORE: 72%= Burnt Popcorn
Here is the trailer: