The Oscar winner writer-director Jane Campion returns to the big screen with The Power of the Dog for the first time in roughly 12 years after 2009’s Bright Star. This western adaptation of Thomas Savage’s novel with the same title stars established actors such as Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst.
The film follows Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is not really fond of his brother George’s (Jesse Plemons) new love interest Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Family feud ensues, and the film focuses on the dynamics of Phil and Peter.
There is little that can be said about the acting, because it is exactly what one would expect from the aforementioned names: nothing more, nothing less. Benedict Cumberbatch is as phenomenal as usual, Kirsten Dunst has always been, and one can see how much both Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee have improved themselves from earlier roles.
Furthermore, the wide and satisfying scenery Campion comes up with is a good reminder of why she is the first woman who has been nominated for more than one Best Director award. Campion creates an atmosphere that the audience would not see in a typical everyday film, it is unique and more so the signature of the director.
Unfortunately, this is more or less the entirety of positivity that can be uttered about The Power of the Dog, because it is just downhill from that point on. The motives are not clear for individual acts the characters commit, on the contrary, they seem random. Where it is coming from might be clear, but as to how and why is almost always left open, and not in a good way such as providing an opportunity for interpretation, but in a way that feels pointless.
As such, the personalities of the characters are not really revealed either. One can understand who stands for what, basically, but again, without any rigor. There is a difference between being implicit and not caring enough to write a structured screenplay.
The root problem of the aforementioned two issues is actually very simple: the fragility of a rabbit and the power of a dog. This derives from pretty much what can be boiled down to the following cliché: people are not always what they seem to be. That’s it. This is the entire reasoning behind the film. Therefore, the runtime is even more of a problem, because two hours of filler-scenes without any purpose other than to support a half-baked motive is either lazy writing or just another film taking itself too seriously.
It feels as if we see another case of Brian De Palma – a director with great strengths who falls too deep into their own comfort zone, focusing on one aspect too heavily, resulting in an empty film. If The Power of the Dog was a short film, it could have been interesting, but given that it is two hours long, the film would serve best as a screensaver for its scenery.