Reel Reviews | The Power of the Dog

by Charles Kirkland, Jr.

When an overbearing rancher is forced to welcome his brother’s new wife and son into his home, he ratchets up the level of torment he imposes upon everyone around him in The Power of the Dog.

Rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is not a nice guy but the cowboys who work for him respect and love him.  When his brother George (Jesse Plemons) decides to take a bride, he is not only suspicious of her motives but reluctant to accept the change that comes with her presence.  From the onset, Phil torments Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her son, physically and mentally.  Until he finds the opportunity for acceptance of the new atmosphere and reconciliation, as he starts to show Rose’s son, Peter the ropes of being a ranch-hand.

Written and directed by Jane Campion (The Piano) based upon the novel by Thomas Savage, The Power of the Dog stars Cumberbatch, Plemons, Dunst, and Kodi Smit-McPhee.  It is Campion’s first film after a twelve-year hiatus from feature films.

New Zealand native, Campion filmed this movie set in Montana in the countryside of her homeland.  While at times the landscape may be reminiscent of the prairies of Montana, there are too many times when the set, including the hills, is not familiar to the look of Montana.  However, the alien setting is more of an asset than a problem as Campion uses a number of beautiful landscape scenes to capture the essence of the Old West and provide a very nice backdrop for where the movie takes place.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Jessie Plemons in The Power of the Dog

Being written and directed by Jane Campion, this film is the epitome of her style.  Left alone to her own devices, Campion carefully nudges the viewers through her story, allowing actors to act and suspenseful drama to grow.  All that is a polite way to say that this movie is paced incredibly slowly.  Despite it being too long, the film tricks you into watching through a number of red herrings about where the film is taking you.  By the time the viewers arrive at the shocking conclusion of the film, because of the pacing, they almost miss the significance. 

Benedict Cumberbatch turns in a performance in this movie that is so out of character that he even reported that he had a hard time finding a way to be so unlikeable.  Unlikeable is a soft term because at times in the film, Cumberbatch’s Phil is just plain evil and no one likes him.  This is a totally different realm for the actor best known as Marvel’s Dr. Strange, who is a little arrogant but at least likable.  There are a couple of scenes when Phil is psychologically tormenting Rose that are a little uncomfortable to watch.  (A little piece of unintended levity occurred each time Dunst’s Rose calls for her son.  Each time she sounds like she is calling for Peter Parker in Spider-Man.)

Rated R for brief sexual content and full nudity (can we say Cumberbutt?), The Power of the Dog is an exercise in patience.  It is an incredibly smart movie with not as smart production.  The film is about thirty minutes too long and feels even longer but, there is a beautiful rainbow at the end.  Unfortunately, you may get too distracted to see it.

The Power of the Dog is in theaters now and on Netflix on December 1. 

Grade:  B