The Power of the Dog

Benedict Cumberbatch stars in The Power of the Dog, directed by Academy Award-winning director Jane Campion, and her first feature film in twelve years.  The movie presents itself as a Western, but it’s actually a bleak character study set in a Western context.  Filled with impressive camera work and interesting performances, The Power of the Dog spends far too much time documenting the misanthropy of its central character Phil, a hard-driving cattle rancher who is not what he seems.  Cumberbatch’s acting definitely earns our attention, but his character’s underlying mystery is telegraphed early on.  The movie’s primary concern is to make the audience uncomfortable watching Phil make the lives of the other characters miserable.  Ultimately, it tests our patience and concludes with an intriguing payoff that almost makes it all  worthwhile, but not quite.  Not recommended.

A character study dressed in Western garb, The Power of the Dog is the story of Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), a trail boss whose interests are limited to driving cattle and insulting his dullard brother George (Jesse Plemons).  From the onset, something’s not quite right about Phil.  He may look and act like a bonafide rancher, but he curiously avoids whoring and carousing with the other cowboys.  When George suddenly takes a wife in the form of meek tavern proprietor Rose (Kirsten Dunst), Phil is angry.  He redirects his misanthropy towards Rose and her effeminate son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee).  

Rose quickly wilts under Phil’s menacing behavior, an intimidating combination of banjo playing and whistling.  (Intimidating banjo playing?  Yep, you heard it here first.)  Peter, with his black bob of hair and ghost-like complexion, sticks out like a sore thumb (arm?) and endures a steady barrage of insults from Phil and the other cowboys.  Unlike his mother, he’s able to shrug off the  antics of the “mean cowboys” when he realizes that the ranch is full of animals, which will help further his medical studies.  (At one point, he dissects a rabbit in his room.)

One day, while out on a nature walk, Peter stumbles across Phil taking a languorous bath in a hidden lake.  Phil angrily chases him off, but the next day Phil is surprised when Peter keeps his secret.  Having earned Phil’s trust, he takes Peter under his wing.  Rose is naturally concerned that Phil may harm Peter, and George tries to assuage her fears, to no avail.  Phil teaches Peter to ride, and gradually shifts from being his tormentor to a mentor.  The two make as odd a couple as you will likely see in a movie, with Phil’s overheated machoness paired with Peter’s bug-like gawkiness.  Over time, Phil explains his admiration of the legendary Bronco Henry, the rancher who taught Phil how to ride when Phil was Peter’s age.  Phil eventually reveals an experience that turned him into the man he became, a revelation that leads to unexpected consequences.

Fans of director Jane Campion will certainly feel obligated to see this movie, which features beautiful camerawork that has typified her work.  Cumberbatch turns in a singular performance that’s unlike anything he’s done before and is almost worth the price of admission.  However, Cumberbatch’s acting is overcooked and never has the nuance and subtlety necessary to achieve transcendence.  Furthermore, the movie’s main conceit–that Phil is himself performing, was apparent to me from the get-go.  As an actor whose career includes many intriguing performances, Cumberbatch is more than up for the challenge of playing a character who is himself acting.  But there is no real  mystery to Phil as a character, and we spend too much time simply enduring what he does and observing the fallout.

The acting choices by the other leads are by turns frustrating and confusing, and when taken together with Cumberbatch, feel like they were intended for four different movies.  Plemons is nearly invisible here, a white blob of negative space.  Dunst, the veteran of the group, leans into damp melodrama.  Smit-McPhee brings the avant-garde, looking like he wandered in from a My Chemical Romance concert nearby.

TPOTD may technically be a movie, but it’s really an endurance test.  Its conceit being: are you patient enough to make it through the movie’s 126 minute runtime until the big reveal is revealed?  The movie’s justification for why Phil is a miserable SOB hell-bent on making everyone around him miserable somehow does the impossible: explaining everything and nothing at the same time.  (There’s a whole lot between points A and B the movie cares not to divulge.)  The movie’s main theme is a compelling one: how by denying your true nature you end up a bitter person resentful towards anyone else who experiences happiness.  The movie takes its time coming to that realization, saving it almost until the end, when it certainly should have come by the midpoint.  When the conclusion finally arrives, it comes abruptly, and it’s almost clever enough to make the experience worthwhile.  (The movie’s other theme, about the hunted and the prey, is largely ignored until it becomes the basis for the ending.)

TPOTD is designed to make us uncomfortable and squirm at the characters and the things they do, and it definitely succeeds.  The movie is predicated on subverting our expectations, which is all fine and dandy, but the movie’s lack of character arcs and action of any kind makes it a  decidedly unpleasant experience with few rewards.

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