Charismatic rancher Phil Burbank inspires fear and awe in those around him. When his brother brings home a new wife and her son, Phil torments them until he finds himself exposed to the possibility of love.
‘The Power of the Dog’ is the latest film from Jane Campion, her first in over ten years, and it is a western drama set in the harsh, beautiful landscape of Montana, with even harsher characters inhabiting it. It centres on two brothers who are wealthy ranch owners, and the widow that one of the men ends up marrying, with much of the story focusing on the conflict this causes in the relationships between these three individuals. The man causing most of this conflict is Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), a menacing individual who takes an immediate dislike to his brother George’s (Jesse Plemons) new wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst), believing her reasons for marrying his brother lie in his wealth. Rose’s son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) also plays an important part.
Now this film is getting a lot of praise in many quarters and perhaps that raised my expectation levels too high, as I never found this to be any better than good. It’s a slow burner, which I can get on board with, but it remains so for almost the entirety of the movie and never truly sparks to life – all build up, minimal pay off. It is never less than absorbing to watch however, and a large part of that is down to Benedict Cumberbatch who is on career best form here as the complex Phil. His presence dominates every scene he features in, and indeed also when he doesn’t feature, with his shadow hanging over the actions of everyone else. This is never clearer than in a terrific scene where Rose is asked to play piano in front of some distinguished guests, yet her fear of Phil prevents her from learning and being able to go through with it, even when he isn’t present. That fear is only enhanced when Phil starts to take an interest in Peter, and much of the tension generated by ‘The Power of the Dog’ comes from wondering whether Phil’s interest is honourable or part of a further ploy to menace Rose.
Jane Campion is a fine director and the plot is constructed meticulously, utilising the Montana backdrops and the fine performances from her cast wonderfully, but I did find the movie a little bit dull at times and the slow pace persists throughout. I felt it needed to really catch fire as we headed towards the conclusion and that never really happens, lowering the impact of how the film ultimately concludes. ‘The Power of the Dog’ is a masterfully constructed piece of work with terrific performances from Cumberbatch, Dunst and Smit-McPhee in particular, but I was never truly gripped by it.
Directed By: Jane Campion
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie, Genevieve Lemon, Keith Carradine, Frances Conroy, Peter Carroll and Adam Beach