The Power of the Dog (2021)
The Power of the Dog (2021)

Genre: Drama and Western Running Time: 2 hrs. 6 min.

Release Date: December 1st, 2021 MPAA Rating: R

Director: Jane Campion Actors: Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirsten Dunst, Sean Keenan, George Mason, Ramontay McConnell, Keith Carradine, Adam Beach, Thomasin McKenzie

 


 

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et in Montana in 1925, brothers George (Jesse Plemons) and Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) run a cattle ranch together. When they drive a herd into the town of Beech, they stop for dinner at the Red Mill, where Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) and her adolescent son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) work and reside. While George is generally quieter and reserved – but still something of an equal leader – Phil is louder and antagonistic, going so far as to insult the effeminate Peter, which eventually brings Rose to tears. The colder, harder man is clearly used to getting his way, speaking his mind, and being revered – or feared. Yet Phil doesn’t make decisions without George around.

The following morning (designated as chapter II), George hangs around the Red Mill to spend more time with Rose, which leads to a romance that results in marriage. This upsets Phil considerably, as he’s against any hiccups in the lifestyle to which he’s so accustomed; plus, for little reason, he views Rose as an unworthy woman – or a threat, as she represents someone who will take attention away from the simplicity of the uncomplicated career he shares with his brother. And when she comes to live with her new husband at their sizable estate, animosity and jealousy (and some additional, more complex feelings) inevitably enter the picture. “You’re a cheap schemer.”

A nicely somber, violin-infused soundtrack presides over the scenarios as Phil works to disrupt any sense of harmony between the brothers; if he has a purpose or a goal, it’s to make sure that Rose never fits in and that the newlyweds never get an opportunity to relax. Much like for the characters onscreen, uncomfortableness is pervasive and practically palpable for the audience. The direction the story is headed seems apparent from the start, but the various episodes of bullying and scorn and ceaseless hostility raise questions as to what will eventually happen. It certainly takes a number of repetitive sequences of enmity to build up an intense enough dislike for the characters and their actions, shifting perspectives and sympathies and, in time, intentions, particularly toward the obvious outsider Peter.

There are a couple of morbid surprises, as well as some revelations surrounding behaviors, often steeped in sexuality (commenting on the standards and expectations of manliness and personal capability), but the dark sense of toying and manipulation never wavers. Phil is up to no good, even when he makes veiled efforts to appear cordial. The music, subtle expressions, and the watchful eye of other characters ensures the audience is well aware of looming dangers and ill intentions. This is the kind of movie during which viewers are meant to remain unnerved; there are precious few minutes of calm. It may not be a traditional thriller, but it possesses an undeniable edge-of-your-seat atmosphere.

Insidious things are perpetually brewing; volatile situations are always on the verge of exploding. Problematically, however, “The Power of the Dog” is a long, steady build, stringing audiences along for what promises to be a catastrophic finale. But ratcheting up tension for two hours straight puts a lot of pressure on the impact of the outcome, especially if it’s a bit of a mystery. Here, the character study (and an examination of an ever-morphing relationship) ends up with more intrigue than the storyline itself, which concludes rather anticlimactically and mystifyingly. Fortunately, the performances are outstanding, led by Cumberbatch in a perfectly unexpected departure from his recent superhero turns. But instead of showing events and interactions to clearly mean what they’re supposed to mean, a central concept of vengeance is shrouded in ambiguity – until the parting shots, by which time it’s mostly too late to appreciate the cleverness (or, here, what feels like accidental fortuitousness) of the long con. Had viewers been allowed in on the ruse just a bit longer, the denouement could have been uncommonly satisfying, rather than merely amusing.

– Mike Massie

  • 6/10