The Power of the Dog is the Oscar-nominated western from Jane Campion, based on the book by Thomas Savage. With a total of 12 Oscar nominations, including Best Actor and Best Motion Picture, expectations for this were incredibly high. And while there are a lot of aspects that are very good, the overall story seems to drag this down.
Set in Montana in 1925, the film follows wealthy ranch-owning brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons). George is college-educated and kind-hearted, preferring to stay quiet, whereas Phil is volatile, mean and keen to mock anyone who doesn’t live up to his standards. While herding their cattle, the brothers and their crew meet Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), a widow and inn owner who lives with her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who wants to study medicine. Rose and Peter wait on the Burbanks and while Phil is keen to mock Peter and his effeminate manner, George becomes rather taken with Rose.
After a number of visits to see her George and Rose marry and they move into the Burbanks’ ranch, also using George’s money to send Peter away to college. Phil has an instant dislike of Rose, thinking she married George for his money and soon spends his days making her life at the ranch as uncomfortable as possible. George meanwhile attempts to introduce Rose to his parents and the local governor by hosting a party in which he intends to show off Rose’s piano playing skills. However due to humiliation from Phil, Rose is unable to play and soon turns to drink in order to get her through the following days.
Peter comes to stay at the ranch for the summer break, discovering that his mother is now an alcoholic. With George working away often, Phil and his men torment Peter who winds up dissecting animals in his bedroom. However, after a run-in with Phil near the pond, the relationship between the pair begins to change, much to the worry of Rose, and eventually leads to some unexpected developments.
This is undoubtedly a very good-looking film, with some incredible scenery and beautiful shots of the American wilderness. It is everything you’d expect from a western and has a dramatic and powerful accompanying score that for the most part really works, although there are some scenes where it feels a little overbearing. The standouts from this though are the performances, mainly from Benedict Cumberbatch and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Dunst and Plemons are good, but I felt like the story and their share of the script let them down and they just weren’t able to give any more. Cumberbatch however does incredibly well as the rather nasty rancher who is more complex than he first appears, and Smit-McPhee is extremely well cast as the son who isn’t quite what he seems either.
The problem I had with this film is that it’s way too slow and overly long, especially the first hour, and it takes too long to get anywhere interesting. From the start, it gives off Brokeback Mountain vibes, which for the most part isn’t a bad thing aside from the incredibly slow pace, but it’s this pacing issue that makes this film rather dull. Great performances can only take a film so far and there just isn’t enough oomph in the script and the story to keep this interesting due to the slow pace.
Which is unfortunate as the ending is fantastic and, had the pace been quicker, it could have made for an excellent film. The ending is maybe a little problematic as I don’t think it is properly explained in the film (I had to look online for an explanation) and is a little too subtle, but once you find out exactly what has happened, it’s a great surprise and not how I was expecting this film to turn out at all. It’s not very often that I’m shocked by an ending but somehow this managed it.
The Power of the Dog is definitely deserving of some of its Oscar nods and is overall a very good looking and well put together film. It’s just a shame that the slow and drawn out pace spoils what could have been a fantastic film, especially with that ending.
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A contract manager moonlighting as a rather discerning film and book critic, with an almost fangirl appreciation for anything made by Christopher Nolan. When I’m not catching up on my latest read or watch, you can usually find me trying out my amateur baking skills – Bake Off here I come!