Directed By Jane Campion
Starring – Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons
The Plot – Charismatic rancher Phil Burbank (Cumberbatch) inspires fear and awe in those around him. When his brother (Plemons) brings home a new wife (Dunst) and her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Phil torments them until he finds himself exposed to the possibility of love.
Rated R for brief sexual content involving full nudity
– Champion Campion. With some of the most introspective directing to hit the western genre since its peak in the Hollywood eye, Jane Campion constructs enough psychology and environmental impulse to flesh out the disparaging grit of Montana’s wild west, during The Great Depression. This not only allows her the candor of fleshing out ear-piercing isolation in a way that the movie’s meticulous sound design can convey a haunting ominousness that emphasizes the brutal inevitability of its unfurling in conflict, but also equally illustrates the loneliness between its characters that often shapes the deconstructive elements of their simultaneous evolutions. It outlines an unpredictable element to the expanding narrative that constantly kept me gripped through the duration of its slightly excessed two hour run time, and when combined with the sluggishly plodding consistency of Campion’s invasive storytelling, casts a foreboding atmospheric element to the engagement that is too thick to look away from, and too personal not to invest in.
– Refreshing takes. At this point in the history of cinema, it’s difficult to reinvent the wheel with regards to the western genre, and while “The Power of the Dog” persists as much of the same as a summarization, there are more than a few glaring instances of originality that allowed it to stand out with unrelenting ambition. Most notably is the decision to remove much of the bigger than life personalities for a series of characters above all else who can be defined as “Human” and “Vulnerable” to say the least. This affords Campion the necessity to trade away an arsenal of firepower and unlimited ammunition at her disposal, in favor of these deep-seeded personal movements in psychological actions that provide a deeper sense contempt for those involved in the conflict. In addition to this, it conveys food for thought in the idea of past trauma’s playing an inspirational hand in those choosing to continue the cycle, and claiming no responsibility for the abundance of people they pull down in the quicksand of their vengeful grief. This aspect is presented without feeling preachy or heavy-handed in the means it is materialized, giving the audience plenty to chew on while interpreting these characters for the periodic wild cards they come across as.
– Poetic scope. Western movies have always presented themselves as opportunities to embrace an abundance of jaw-dropping scenery that humbles and hinders its characters, but it’s what the film does with such benefits that enhances the core of its luster. The authentic element of Campion using her native New Zealand to replicate the stunning vistas of Montana’s cattle country, simply can’t be understated here, especially in the way her picture-perfect framing and immense 2.39:1 aspect ratio solidifies a deeper sense of longing and loneliness for the characters standing centered among the untouched mountainsides. Assisting in this is the spell-binding cinematography from Ari Wegner, who captures the vast beauty of the scenic landscapes by making the most of magic hour lighting to reinforce the mythic quality of this particular place in time. His interior scenes are coldly colored and methodically lingering, which add to a metaphorically poisonous fog that is constantly hanging over the heads of our condemned characters, and made all the more alluring with claustrophobia of the narrow hallways producing an inevitability to confrontation.
– Meaningful layers. We’ve wasted enough time, so let’s get to the heart of the film, and that’s the performances from this talented cast. While the confines of underwritten characterization do no favors to a majority of the actors saddled with it, the depth in emotionality still produces more than one mesmerizing turn. As no surprise, this is definitely Cumberbatch’s show to steal, but what is surprising is the possibility of it being his best performance to date, with a vile fragile masculinity serving at the forefront of a few corresponding characteristics. When his vitriolic urges aren’t demeaning the integrity of those closest to him, it’s Cumberbatch’s stern deliveries that demand a faithful attention of the audience, while cementing a captivating presence that prescribes so much weight and influence as a result of his appearance. Dunst meanwhile, never fails to earn sympathy in the eyes of the audience, transitioning through enough tenderness and magnifying frailty as a result of an uncomfortable nervous breakdown with a meticulous deterioration. Dunst’s eyes convey an internal emptiness that echoes from within, only relived upon during the on-screen moments of bliss she shares with on-screen and off-screen husband, Plemons, at her release.
– Unseen force. Giving the power to the proverbial dog in the film’s spiritual title, Jonny Greenwood hands in the third and final score in a remarkable 2021 that has cemented him as one of the very best and most eclectic composers working today. In the instance of this film, it’s what Greenwood supplants towards repetition and familiarity that is most fortuitous for the music’s evolution, particularly in the third act of the film, where the combination of violin strumming and soft keys on a piano extend from an opening act incorporation that was so brief and temporary. With more experience and knowledge of the story at the wayside of our audible accompaniment, the compositions themselves elicit a three-dimensional aging that is made all the more profound with what the instruments represent in the context of the shifting storytelling, especially with Cumberbatch and Dunst’s respective characters each being instrumentally gifted within the beats of their characterization. Greenwood’s score is truly unlike anything I’ve ever heard for the western genre, made all the more appreciative for the simplicity that basks in the ability to construct so many themes and emotions to a few repetitious notes that grow with time in the same way our characters do.
– Meaningful wardrobe. On a merit of its own, you can credit the production’s costume design department for the impeccable wisdom it cements during various timely fashion trends, like wholly chaps or Plimsoll’s, for the occasion. But for my money, it’s the palpable intention of the clothes that reach for a deeper sense of reflection in a character’s personality that is most intriguing, bringing with them a prolific representation that are anything but accidental. Take Cumberbatch’s Phil, a rugged hard-edged cattle rancher whose consistency of dark colors and resilient material outline a man who values the notion that appearance is everything. This is practically echoed with Dunst’s Rose, as her designs initially begin as weathered gowns with their best days certainly behind them, but when she meets and weds Plemons’ George, she is given a barrage of elegant three piece gowns to project her and her son’s financial improvement subconsciously, and even though her demeanor sags with the decadence throughout the film, the vibrancy of her gowns transpires an off-setting happiness that is just as much for appearances as the aforementioned Phil.
– Problematic slips. As many benefits as everything above attained in my mostly positive experiences, there were more than a few clunky instances in the script that made it all the more tedious with time. One technique used to transition between portions, is the five chapters throughout the film that even feature roman numerals to divide the various sections. The unfortunate aspect is that within the chapters themselves are several abruptly ambiguous time skips that make the flow of the pacing feel less than smooth, leading to hinderances on character journey’s that become suspect as a result of occasionally clumsy editing. An example certainly pertains to Smit-McPhee falling off of a horse while trying to learn how to ride it in one scene, then in the very next is him riding the same horse throughout the mountains fairly confidently. While on the subject of pacing, I was thrilled with the necessity of crafting such a slow-burn for a western that practically begs for it, but in such an encapsulation, there are several moments that I felt intentionally led to a padding of the run time, instead of adding something compelling to the dissection of the narrative. As for the ending, the movie continuously builds towards a boiling point that it will use to reach an explosive climax that it will use as a resolution epiphany, or a deconstruction into total chaos. But neither ever actually happens, and instead we’re left with an abrupt swing in the closing ten minutes that completely undercuts the dramatic heft of everything that is hanging in the balance, while stitching together an execution that is marred by its lack of clarity in the details.
– Uneven characterization. Previously, I commended only two performances of this talented ensemble, and the reason being is because Plemons and Smit-McPhee are marred by a complete lack of exposition and attention to their respective characters. It’s definitely worse for Plemons, whose only purpose is to serve as the momentary reminder of good to Cumberbatch’s evil. For Kodi, it’s more about the undercutting of his respective arc, particularly as one whose motivations and justifications for such aren’t always properly defined to the extent that garners audience agreement. If the film approached his trauma with the same kind of emphasis and importance as that of Phil’s, then we’d have a fully-fleshed out dynamic that would feel like there’s much more at stake. As it stands, the resolution is a bit of an afterthought with the way it’s produced, resulting in an underwhelming pay-off that might not be the proper justification that audiences needed for the testing, and sometimes tedious investment.
My Grade: 8/10 or B