Apart from Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance, The Power of the Dog never rises above serviceable. Unable to delve deeper into its own story and rather unforgivably keeping its audience at arm’s length throughout.
Rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an intimidating presence to all but his brother George (Jesse Plemons). The two men run a hugely successful inherited ranch on the edge of a tiny frontier town in the early 1920s. But, with only the company of the rough cattle hands, George yearns for something a little more refined. At the same time, Phil is content with their mutual isolation and craves his brother’s favour and companionship. But when George brings home a new wife, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and her teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Phil turns on his most arresting power to torment.
Phil and George’s dynamic is one of the key strengths of the film. We are told that Phil is college-educated but seeming has taken to living a gruffer lifestyle despite his fortune from the business and wants to be surrounded by the masculinity of the job. In comparison, George is not as educated to the same level but is hell-bent on upgrading his surroundings and venturing into the modern world of cars and suits. In addition, he distances himself from his brother by trying to present himself as the modern man in the outskirts of a small town. This of course is not helped by the continual jabs that Phil sends his way to try and show superiority (something that you will see continually through the film as Phil tries to grab control of situations and people).
Both Cumberbatch and Plemons perfectly encapsulate the disparity between the siblings as Phil yearns for a simple, quiet life instead of the progressive one that George is stretching for. Campion showcases this wonderfully when George has a dinner party with his parents, the governor, and George’s wife, Rose. However, the invited Phil was not willing to attend because he must dress formally and have a wash. This fractured relationship never seems like it will heal as the duo go off in different directions in their lives.
Campion’s film has the issue that, like the awkward and cringe-inducing formal dinner scene, it is filled with brilliant moments, but they never connect fully as an overarching story. We see Phil torment Peter when the ranchers come into town for a few minutes, but for Rose and Peter to be so heavily affected by that moment for the film’s duration is puzzling. Has Phil done it before? If not, why does he so rattle them? Scenes like when Rose is practising on the piano, and she cannot get it right and begins to get mocked by Phil as he plays his banjo upstairs to the same tune. You are gripped at times, but other than a call back line later in the film, it never seems to mean something other than adding another layer onto their lack of a relationship.
This brings us to the most frustrating aspect with The Power of the Dog is how it seems adamant at keeping everyone at arm’s length—delving just enough to keep the audience interested but never gripped. Campion, for some reason, has the audience carry out a lot of the hard work in figuring out the characters. While some films strengths are in allowing its audience to form more of the story, here it needed a bit more than what is told as what is in this story is fascinating. With the cast delivering the performances they do, it deserves far more than what we eventually get.
This distant nature to its characters causes the film to plod far more than it has a call for. We are presented with mere sketches and ideas of each character, with us never learning quite enough to feel for them appropriately enough. Other than Cumberbatch, who we can see is tortured within himself; we are never really given reasons to care as much for the rest of the cast other than feeling pity for Rose for being unwittingly dragged into a situation she never expected to be in.
It is Cumberbatch’s work here that truly stands out; at the start of The Power of the Dog; we are given little reason to care for him, it is only once he and the others return home that the story starts to try to flesh him out (and minimally so). This is where we begin to understand him a bit better as a person, and if not for the small touches that Cumberbatch brings to the film, these could be entirely lost to the audience. Yet other than Dunst having to be upset at every moment and Plemons being frustrated, they are never given enough to do.
It is a shame that the film wants to meander the way it does and just toe the line of being perfectly serviceable, almost afraid of being bolder. Campions direction and even Jonny Greenwood’s score are adequate without ever rising above the middle ground. For a film like this, it needs to be more than satisfactory for it to fulfil itself. Skimming the surface isn’t sufficient for a movie like this and, by doing so, betrays the audience of something that should have been fantastic.
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