The Power of the Dog isn’t for everyone. It certainly isn’t for children, the squeamish, or those bothered by a constant state of dread and anticipation. For the rest, it’s a dark revisionist Western that doesn’t go where you think it’s going to go. It’s got a practically airtight screenplay, and the acting and cinematography are excellent.
It takes place in 1925 Montana, which puts it well out of the 25-year window of most classic westerns (1865-1890). It’s a fascinating combination of old (the landscape, the cattle, the cowboys) and modern touches such as a car and a fairly modern bathroom. The clash between the old West and modernism is at the core of the film.
A simple retelling of the plot seems to give away the film, but it doesn’t. We have two brothers, one a very soft-spoken and kind man, and the other a combination of John Wayne playing his worst characters and Mr. Potter of It’s a Wonderful Life. The kind one marries a widow with a rather effeminate son, and the harsh brother can’t seem to stop from bothering him. The rising tension is palpable, but that’s all that should be said.
This is director Jane Campion’s return to form. Most would remember her from The Piano, which won Holly Hunter her Oscar. (Coincidentally, a piano figures into this film as well.) The directing is slow and deliberate, almost studied and careful, but intelligent. Her script is worthy of study, and happens to be divided into chapters, a gamble that doesn’t always pay off, but does here. There are a few moments that seem unsupported to me, even upon a second viewing. But there is a steady inevitability to the film that makes it captivating. Advice to casual viewers: Don’t be casual. You have to pay attention to what’s going on in every scene, as Campion gives you all the information you need, but never makes a particular big deal out of any one action.
Some have said this is Campion’s attempt to make a Terrence Malick film (Days of Heaven, The Tree of Life), with its slow pace and its many, many nature shots. But the film is more like Campion’s version of There Will Be Blood. There is a strong central male performance of a character we really don’t like. There are beautiful shots of a landscape both inviting and menacing. But perhaps most striking is Jonny Greenwood’s score. He scored Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, Phantom Thread, and most tellingly, There Will Be Blood.
In some unfortunate ways, The Power of the Dog can be seen as a pale imitation of TWBB. It’s not, but there are real reasons to think so. The music is a less intense version of There Will Be Blood’s, with all the dissonance accompanying the visuals. It’s no longer a new approach, so it might seem simply derivative. Also, and perhaps most important to the comparison, is the lead character. Benedict Cumberbatch is deservedly already winning awards for his performance here for his charismatic and problematic Phil, and he’ll certainly be nominated for an Oscar. But if you’re comparing this excellent actor to Daniel Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview in TWBB, Cumberbatch can unfairly suffer from the comparison. For one, as good as he is (some of his work in Sherlock is a master class in acting), Daniel Day-Lewis is simply the greatest English-speaking actor of this generation (IMHO). Also, Plainview stands in for America and much more in TWBB, while Cumberbatch’s Phil is a particular individual. Yes, his character is working to upend stereotypes, and he stands for a revisionist look at Western masculinity (at least). But Phil simply isn’t as broad as Daniel Plainview, and he is rightly not played that way. Cumberbatch is excellent here, and shows us the incredible range of his talents.
Playing the romantic couple at the heart of the story are real-life couple Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons. Dunst turns in her best and most mature performance here, and there has been a great deal of talk of her first Oscar nomination. She may get that, and she is very good here, but she almost certainly won’t win. Plemons is solid but very soft; his part is necessary, especially in contrast to his brother, but he nearly disappears at times. The blazing star of the film is Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays (or to be more accurate, underplays) the son of Dunst’s character and therefore step-nephew to Phil. Smit-McPhee has been acting for most of his life (The Road, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, X-Men: Apocalypse), but this is the very definition of a breakout role, even with as internal a performance as he gives. The tension between his character and Phil is extraordinary, with many shades of meaning and possible meaning. And to quote Forrest Gump, “That’s all I have to say about that.”
It’s been 12 years since Campion has directed a feature (Bright Star), and nearly 30 years since The Piano. The Power of the Dog is a tough, smart, and a work of art full of surprises, and we can only hope it’s not another 12 years before we see another film from this director.