Saturday 8 January 2022

Movie Review: The Power Of The Dog (2021)

A character-driven drama set in a western milieu, The Power Of The Dog boasts visual beauty, slow pacing, and a remarkably sparse story.

In Montana of 1925, brothers Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons) own and run a cattle ranch. Phil idolizes the memory of deceased cowboy Bronco Henry, who taught him all he knows about ranching 25 years ago. He is also a brash leader and enjoys belittling others, especially George, who is calmer and quieter. After a cattle drive to a nearby trading town, George quickly courts and marries the widow Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), who runs an inn and restaurant. Her teenaged son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) loves to create paper flowers and has feminine tendencies, making him an easy target for Phil. 

Phil believes Rose is a cheap gold-digger not really in love with George and only looking for a cut of the Burbanks' wealth. When George is away, Rose is intimidated and starts to drink heavily. Peter enrolls in medical school, but on a visit back to the ranch, the dynamic between him and Phil starts to change.

For a film clocking in at 126 minutes, remarkably little happens in The Power Of The Dog. Director and writer Jane Campion adapts a book by Thomas Savage, and is primarily interested in the rugged beauty of the landscape, a place where men are men and any man lacking macho swagger is a misfit and soft target. Phil, George, Rose, and Peter create a compelling quartet of characters brought together by a hasty union, and Phil's grim but conflicted and intentionally aggravating persona pulses a steady crackle of tension through the inter-personal dynamics.

While the film is not exactly a slog, the pacing is near-moribund. A good three quarters of the movie invests in the foundational set-up, a long and ultimately pointless dinner party sequence among the slow-moving, often circular distractions. Campion finally progresses beyond Phil's underhanded insults and towards character evolutions, some unpredictability, and a heightened sense of drama. Needs and weaknesses are revealed, and a double-ended low-key duel unfolds. The thematic arc remains subtle, evocations of a changing west quietly exposed through intellect as an emergent clandestine weapon on the prairies.

With narrative momentum barely providing any competition, the actors grab centre-stage. Benedict Cumberbatch conveys dominant sweaty presence with an intensity crafted to hide tortured secrets. Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst are adequate foils, while Kodi Smit-McPhee gains impressive stature and prominence in the final act.

Lyrical and soulful, The Power Of The Dog is also an embrace of cinematic lethargy.

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