From director/writer Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog is an odd one. The film is not bad nor is it great, it’s just underwhelming average. Based on the book of the same name, Campion’s latest boasts a few strong performances backed by some stunning visual scenery. These are just two of the things that make the film almost seem better than what it actually is. The cinematography evokes the dusty planes of Howard Hawks’ Red River and almost any John Ford film. The iconic doorway shot in The Searchers is retooled here as a motif that Campion continually uses to box characters in, despite their expansive surroundings.
Set in the 1920s, The Power of the Dog follows two wealthy Montana brothers, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons). Together, they own the biggest ranch in town. Phil is an extremely cruel and bigoted man, who targets George’s stepson just to get back at his brother for secretly getting married to a local woman named Rose (Kirsten Dunst). A simple familial feud soon turns into an unreasonable ploy to gain revenge.
The core problem lies in the film’s largely lackluster story. Surely, this narrative could have been retooled to be more engaging. The Power of the Dog starts slow and never really picks up, in spite of its all-around promising cast and crew. Additionally, due to this, the film starts to come across as dull. It flutters back and forth over the line of boredom as it occasionally reignites the spectator’s attention. That being said, it’s likely that Campion’s new film will be quite divisive given that it does have its few unique qualities that shine.
The Power of the Dog feels and looks like a western, but is more of a traditional drama. Most of Campion’s focus lies within the cast and their interactions. Benedict Cumberbatch does a good job leading this tale, although his accent has a few shakeups here and there, although that’s forgivable. His role is interesting, regardless of being despicable. Yet the true heart of the film lies with Dunst as she attempts to break free of Phil’s revenge plot. Dunst is a much-welcome addition to the almost all-male cast who dominate every other minute of screen time. Campion successfully makes the audience align with her character, thanks to all the hardships that she faces at the hand of a horrible man.
Zola cinematographer Ari Wegner is another standout artist that must be named. Wegner’s yellow-tainted, western-influenced cinematography is an effective tool for Campion’s story to utilize. Perhaps the film’s lacking narrative isn’t worthy of such visual fare, it’s certainly going to be one of the aspects that audiences will remember the best. In the end, there is both nothing terribly bad and nothing all that great about The Power of the Dog. It’s just a fine film that had a lot more potential considering the creatives at hand.