Directed by: Jane Campion
Premise: In 1925 Montana, brothers Phil and George (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons) manage a cattle ranch. George marries a widowed innkeeper (Kirsten Dunst), causing Phil to act jealous and cruel.
What Works: The Power of the Dog is a western but it is also a family drama with interesting and complex characters. The conflict plays out between two brothers. George is a softspoken gentleman while Phil is harsh and uncouth. When George marries a woman and becomes a father to her teenage son, Phil behaves cruelly toward all three of them. Phil never does anything overtly violent but his presence is so intimidating that he provokes reactions from everyone around him; George slinks away, his wife Rose resorts to drinking, and her son Peter makes plans of his own. But Phil’s meanness may be a sublimation of his own desires. The film leaves Phil’s intentions ambiguous in a way that makes The Power of the Dog interesting to dissect. The actors take advantage of the material. Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons play brothers Phil and George. Phil is a bully and we can see the cumulative effect of that bullying in Plemons’ performance. Cumberbatch allows Phil to be unlikable but he also has a charm that allows him to get close to his nephew, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee. Peter is playing the long game and Smit-McPhee is quite subtle, allowing Peter’s own malevolence to only become clear in the final minutes of the film. And Kirsten Dunst is also quite good as Rose. She reacts severely to Phil’s bullying in a way that suggests some deeper trauma. The nuanced characters of The Power of the Dog are matched by a story told with great narrative economy. Although it’s not ostentatiously edited, the story is streamlined and ever major development is set up and paid off. The filmmakers do an excellent job pulling everything together without overly telegraphing where the story is going or coming across contrived. This makes for a story that is handsomely shaped but feels organic.
What Doesn’t: Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons are cast as brothers. Individually each of them does a good job and they certainly react to each other in a convincing way. But these men look so different from one another that it is inconceivable that they came from the same gene pool.
Bottom Line: The Power of the Dog provides a straightforward story whose characters possess texture and depth. The film is well acted and judiciously assembled in a way that makes it very rewatchable.
Episode: #883 (December 19, 2021)