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.