Writer’s note: The second paragraph of this article (just below the first image) contains a basic outline of the film’s premise. There are no spoilers that weren’t already inferred in the film’s own trailer. However, if you want to completely avoid potential spoilers, skip over the second paragraph.
The gulf between what critics like and what audiences like keeps getting wider and wider. This is most evident when you look at the Academy Awards, which regularly nominates a handful of dramatic and artful films many general audiences haven’t seen or heard of. Viewers would gladly watch the award nominees, but the kinds of films that receive nominations aren’t made easily available. This has created a false narrative that audiences don’t appreciate art, or that big studios don’t make culturally important cinema. Consequently, this has given filmmakers the impression they need to push the boundaries of artistic storytelling in order to be taken seriously, but this could risk alienating audiences, which is ultimately who you need on your side in the long run. With that in mind, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog (2021) may be this season’s awards favourite, but will that ensure its place as a culturally relevant artefact?
Set in Montana circa 1925, brothers Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons) use their considerable wealth to run their expansive cattle ranch. George is docile, kind and polite, but Phil is a domineering alpha who takes pleasure in humiliating and intimidating those around him. Things are complicated by the arrival of Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a single mother raising her quiet son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). George and Rose quickly fall in love and marry, prompting Rose and Peter to move into the Ranch. Phil isn’t thrilled about this, as he ignorantly believes Rose is only after George’s money. Phil proceeds to make life difficult for Rose, yet he soon takes an interest in Peter. Additionally, this fascination with the young boy is eerily reminiscent of his obsession with Bronco Henry, Phil’s deceased mentor with whom he is implied to have been in a sexual relationship.
First and foremost, The Power of the Dog is practically flawless as far as its production elements go. The expansive plains of 1920s Montana haven’t been cheaply recreated with flimsy green screen or computer effects. Instead, the film is shot in beautiful, tangible locations, effectively using real mountains, real terrain and real skies to take us back in time. Ari Wegner’s gorgeous cinematography makes nearly every frame wonderfully picturesque, even managing to turn grimy, dirty and ugly scenarios into visually jaw-dropping images. When auteur filmmakers use the term ‘cinema’, this is what they are referring to, as you are immediately thinking about how good the film would look on the biggest screen imaginable. You don’t necessarily need explosive spectacle to create striking visuals, and The Power of the Dog proves that fact.
Thankfully, it’s not just the cinematography that holds your attention, as the performances across the board are top notch. Benedict Cumberbatch is of course perfect in his role, brilliantly exuding all of the raw hatred, anger and intimidation of Phil. Amazingly, Cumberbatch’s imposing performance is matched by Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons, both of whom arguably deliver career best work. Even with their relatively limited amount of material, both cast members create richly drawn characters who definitely have more going on than what we’re afforded to see. The most interesting work comes from Kodi Smit-Mcphee, who turns in a subdued yet brilliantly hypnotic performance as Peter. Smit-Mcphee has been under-appreciated for far too long, so it’s nice to see him steal the show in a uniquely minimalist fashion.
‘Minimalist’ is also an appropriate word to describe the film’s storytelling, but weirdly it isn’t always in a positive sense. Similar to Paul Thomas Anderson’s classic There Will Be Blood (2007), director Jane Campion builds a foreboding sense of dread by letting the audience’s fear fill in the silence. However, where Anderson would release the tension at key intervals, Campion opts to keep the tension building for nearly the entire runtime. Nearly every conceivable plot point operates at a level of subtlety which rarely registers, resulting in many of the important moments to be lost. The character turns, story threads, and dramatic reveals are there, but they either happen between the margins or are hidden underneath layers of subtext. Therefore, The Power of the Dog struggles to build a sense of engagement or payoff by the time the credits roll.
To be fair, the film isn’t trying to be comprehensible, as it’s far more interested in conjuring thematic ideas and complexities than in telling an actual narrative. Campion is dealing with concepts around toxic masculinity, commodification, loyalty, sexuality and depression, thus she has very little interest in making it easily palatable. This was definitely the correct approach, but even the most artistic stories need to allow for entry into their many interpretations. Unlike There Will Be Blood, The Power of the Dog rarely gives the viewer enough story to actually discern the meaning of the events. Many film aficionados would argue that the vagueness is part of the art, but it’s hard to engage with the art if the basic storytelling keeps us at arm’s length.
This is the most damning thing about The Power of the Dog, as it’s difficult to actually become emotionally invested despite it clearly requiring your investment. We can marvel at the performances, the camera work, the music, the direction, the artistic presentation and the dramatic themes, but we should still be afforded the opportunity to engage directly with the story. The Power of the Dog is so concerned with being intelligent and (for lack of a better word) powerful, that it arguably fails to let the audience in on its intelligent discussion. To be clear, the film didn’t need to dull its artful nature, but it shouldn’t have completely alienated the less film-literate amongst us. Mainstream audiences can (and do) enjoy films like this all the time, so it may be beneficial to let them in.
This is ultimately why the Academy Award discussion is beginning to feel arbitrary, as how can a film be the best of the year if it doesn’t penetrate our cultural consciousness? Granted, the most superbly crafted films should be the ones that become important artefacts, but a memorable and important film isn’t defined entirely by its strong direction, performances and themes. A memorable and important film is defined by how it makes the audience feel, and for all of its obvious brilliance The Power of the Dog is missing that one integral element.
Best way to watch it: When you’re definitely not sleepy (if you want to get through it in one sitting).