The Power of the Dull

A bitter revisionist Western from Jane Campion

‘The Power of the Dog,’ the first film in a dog’s age from director Jane Campion, is a sour, cruel, unpleasant picture, the kind of revisionist genre work that critics love and audiences hate. Set on a sprawling Montana cattle ranch in 1925, and based on a 2001 novel by Thomas Savage, The Power of the Dog explores similar territory as Brokeback Mountain, but without that movie’s big heart and tragic spirit. “Let’s take Brokeback Mountain but make it unpalatable to mainstream viewers” is not a recipe for success.

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THE POWER OF THE DOG★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Jane Campion
Written by: Jane Campion
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McFee
Running time: 127 mins


Benedict Cumberbatch plays Phil, a classically-educated, deeply-repressed gay man who plays the banjo and yearns for a deceased ranch hero named Bronco Henry, who taught him to mount a saddle in more ways than one. He co-owns a successful cow-wrangling operation with his kind but dim brother, Jesse Plemons channeling Philip Seymour Hoffman. Plemons’s character marries an alcoholic widow named Rose, played with depth and intelligence by the always-welcome Kirsten Dunst. With that package comes Rose’s neurodivergent son, a gangly weirdo played by Kofi Smit-McFee. A plot sets into motion very slowly, secrets sort of unravel, all leading up to one of the darkest and most cynical movie endings in recent memory.

This is a serious movie for serious people, but it leans so hard into its seriousness that it almost emerges out the other side as camp. Cumberbatch refuses to take a bath and keeps copies of “Physical Culture” magazine in his secret pond-side hidey-hole. McFee dissects a rabbit in his bedroom. Campion infuses the film with a annoying jangly, discordant score and close-ups of flies on horseheads that had me wondering, at moments, if I was watching some sort of Western prequel to ‘Hereditary.’

And man, does Campion ever direct this film. She composes every short perfectly. The bits of Montana we do see are expansive, beautiful, and ominous, like a Mordor of the West. And she makes it very clear that this movie takes place on a conquered frontier. The Native Americans we see are wearing modern garb, living hand-to-mouth trading discarded cowhides and selling leather goods. It’s No Country for Old Men, or women, or gay men, or Native Americans, or anyone, really.

The Power of The Dog is a piece of chilly, high-end art that you admire on the way to what you really want to do with the night, a bitter tonic before the meal. It’s the cinematic equivalent of modern literary fiction: Composed, precise, stage-managed, pessimistic. If you’re studying composition and technique, maybe you’ll love The Power of The Dog, but, as most of my late relatives used to say, it’s about as fun as a root canal. For a more conventional revisionist Western, I recommend the big-hearted News of the World, which released during the pandemic and therefore vanished into dust. That movie isn’t as artful as The Power of the Dog, but it has an optimistic, populist spirit, plus a lot of action. The Power of the Dog has neither. It doesn’t much care for its audience, or for itself.

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 11 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

8 thoughts on “The Power of the Dull

  • February 8, 2022 at 1:01 pm
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    I was honestly shocked to learn that this movie led the Academy Award nominations. I really didn’t think anyone would even remember it existed after the apex of its awards hype last December. The Power of Dog’s not even pretentious in a modern way, it’s just grim for the sake of being grim, featuring characters who go out of their way to be assholes for no reason. That Cumberbatch would pick this of all things as his award bait picture is especially surprising, because he’s thoroughly typecast as a guy who’s angry about everything and this role gives zero impression that he’s capable of doing pretty much anything else.

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  • February 8, 2022 at 9:43 pm
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    Thank you. Spot on review.

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  • February 9, 2022 at 4:39 am
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    How can anyone think Power of the Dog is any good? Especially all the awards contests? This is the worst movie ever – way too long, way too dreary, no plot for the first two thirds of the movie, and Benedict Cumberbatch plays one note through most of the movie – unlikeable, angry jerk for no discernible reason. It feels like the acting of a first time actor. And he is totally wrong for the role. His ‘cowboy accent’ sounds way too proper, precise, and British, and he walks like a woman with a skirt that’s too wide who has shit in her pants. Yuck, what a funeral dirge. I only watched it to the end because it was “award-nominated’ but that was several wasted hours of my life. The end got a little interesting with the budding gay relationship, but not enough, and then it did a switcheroo and the guy is dead, but it wasn’t clear by whom or why. A boring waste of time.

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    • February 10, 2022 at 2:00 am
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      Oh, I had trouble with that too. The twinky guy goes out of his way to find a sick cow so that he can give diseased leather to Cumberbatch for his rope. That bit confused me because that whole plan hinges on the twinky guy’s mom giving all the spare leather to the natives, which the twinky guy couldn’t have possibly known about because she only did that because she was drunk, and no one would explain to her why they were keeping the spare leather. As to why he did it I guess because he decided he hated Cumberbatch after all despite the final act being about their becoming friends? Yeah, I don’t know either.

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    • February 12, 2022 at 8:47 am
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      “The twinky guy” is brilliant. That’s exactly what he’s playing.

      The movie should have been called “The Twinky Guy and The Mean Oxbridge Asshole Cowboy.”

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  • February 11, 2022 at 8:24 pm
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    Best review i’ve seen .Thanks.

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  • February 25, 2022 at 10:44 am
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    What a pretentious piece of claptrap. What makes scenes like walking out into a field and standing there, or staring with a frozen look on one’s face, high art and marvellous acting. The fact that this thing got so many Oscar awards should have been warning enough. It’s not deep – anyone can figure out the story. It’s just meandering and dull – and pretentious. With a cast who have issues running rampant. Fabulous things to dwell upon and watch obviously for some. I’d give it the award for cinematography.

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  • March 6, 2022 at 11:57 pm
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    Spot on and well said!

    Reply

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