Seems like if writer-director Jane Campion wanted to make a major motion picture about a closeted gay cowboy who acts mean to his brother out of self-loathing, she could’ve found a much more interesting way to tell the story than The Power of the Dog, which treats its characters with painful remove. Frustratingly straightforward and shallow, it is the sort of film that requires the audience to bring a lot more insight and thought than the movie itself is willing to provide.
The Burbank brothers, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) run their wealthy family’s ranch. Phil wants to live rough, working the farm with the other men and rarely bathing. He craves the masculine ideal. George longs for a more “civilized” life of dinner parties, a wife and a clean home.
They both grew up with advantages; Phil, for a time, was quite the intellectual, although it’s only mentioned through dialogue on one occasion. But their lives change when George decides to marry Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), a widow who owns a small restaurant along their cattle-driving route. Rose has a son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is meek, skinny and speaks with a lisp. Phil’s first instinct is to verbally abuse Rose and Peter, interlopers that they are into the world he built for himself on the ranch. He’s a real piece of shit.
The main selling point is Cumberbatch’s performance. He’s good enough. Campion hired an actor known for his ability to make arrogance likable, and Cumberbatch gets the job done. Although the marketing leans into it, Phil’s sexual orientation — and how it informs his adulthood — is somehow far too understated and straightforward, a contradiction that gets to the bottom of what makes Dog such a laborious watch. Most of what it has to say about living a life by someone else’s expectations has been said before and with more insight. It would’ve been groundbreaking queer cinema in, maybe, 1995. Contemporary cinema has, thankfully, become much better at creating characters who are not solely defined by the perceived mystique of their sexuality.
Once Phil and Peter find themselves on a collision course, it’s pretty obvious where everything is going to end up and not terribly gripping on the way there. Peter has hobbies of his own that involve trapping and dissecting cute animals, you see. Because he wants to be a doctor, you see. Subtle and complex is not the name of the game here.
Campion’s direction and Ari Wegner’s cinematography is fine. Like everything else in the movie, it gets the job done, but it also suffers by comparison with hundreds of finer-looking Western films from the last 50 years. There are only so many ways to photograph sunlit grass with droplets of blood.
It’s hard to say much more about The Power of the Dog, but a few stray thoughts: every dramatic moment is underlined by Jonny Greenwood’s uncharacteristically cloying score; the final beats do their best to make sure the audience understands the title (taken from a Bible verse), in case nobody was paying enough attention; the performances are fine, when they’re able to be, which is rare besides Cumberbatch chewing the scenery. Dunst and Plemons are nice to see back onscreen together, but neither of their characters has much to do. When the lights went up at my screening, there was nothing but awkward silence as the audience shuffled their way down the aisles, wondering, “That was it?”
The Power of the Dog was screened at the 2021 Heartland International Film Festival. It opens in limited theatrical release on Wednesday, Nov. 17 and will stream on Netflix beginning Wednesday, Dec. 1.