Sometimes, when a film has an award-winning talent at the helm (The Piano’s Jane Campion), a stacked roster of incredible actors (including Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Thomasin McKenzie) and gorgeous photography (cinematographer Ari Wegner, who framed this year’s Zola) - you know, everything a film can have to thrive - it can put you under a spell. It plays with your head and causes you to believe that no matter what unfolds in the next two hours, it’s going to be great.
However, in the case of The Power of the Dog, a Western drama that Netflix is hoping will be one of its heavy hitters for the awards season, all of those filmmaking components are papered around fundamentally flawed storytelling and characterization. It has seeds of ideas about the secrets we carry, repressed emotions, masculinity and clinging to the past. Still, nobody seems to water them to blossom into a work with any lingering effects.
Based on Thomas Savage’s novel of the same name, The Power of the Dog has thematic and visual echoes of films such as East of Eden, McCabe & Mrs. Miller and Brokeback Mountain. It centers on the relationship between two brothers, George and Phil Burbank (Plemons and Cumberbatch). Living in 1920s Montana, the Burbanks are well-known ranchers in the area, collecting hides and working together from sunup to sundown with their crew. Not to mention that they share the same bed. There’s something that draws them close together, yet they couldn’t be any more different from one another.
Phil is a slender, crass man with an engaged mind. He’s a natural leader who doesn’t like to show the slightest sign of weakness. So he often sneaks off to his alone place to replay memories of his former days. But, there’s also a dangerous side to him that doesn’t sit well with others — like George’s love interest, Rose Gordon (Dunst), the widowed proprietress of a comfortless hotel, and her teen son, Peter (Smit-McPhee).
George, on the other hand, is stockier and quiet. Phil even meanly calls him “Fatso,” which doesn’t seem to have much purpose other than quickly painting Phil as a compassionless individual. (A later sequence of Phil whipping a horse has the same effect, feeling more randomly placed and not earning its menace.) These strange dynamics cause the viewer to stroke their chins as they emerge with their mad complexity and meekness. At times, the characters lure you in, making you want to know more about their backgrounds. Other times - and probably most of the time - it has you scratching your head over too many “why” questions.
“Why” questions could be asked throughout The Power of the Dog. It’s not a matter of not understanding the material, because you will reach a point where the mystery of what’s truly going on is revealed subtly. But it’s difficult to discount the fact of how airy it all feels. Scenes will go on longer than they should, making you believe that something terrible is about to happen. Something as simple as Phil playing the banjo in a dark room, with Jonny Greenwood’s purposely out-of-key or oddly instrumented score creeping in, hints at an encroaching danger. Yet, it builds up and stops without being gradual like the work of Denis Villeneuve (Dune) — who has a knack for slow-building doom. In The Power of a Dog, these moments feel like they don’t amount to anything substantial. Instead, they serve as padding without value.
That’s not to say the film doesn’t have quiet scenes of impact. The arguably best sequence sees Rose rummaging through an alley’s empty bottles to find any ounce of alcohol she can find. Phil has been playing her like his banjo because he feels that she’s disrupted his idea of normalcy and suspects that she has an evil agenda of her own. When Phil spots her from his window, trying to numb her experience, Phil whistles a Jeepers Creepers-like tune to get under her skin. Rose hears him, turns, and Phil pulls his head back from the window to hide a smile. It’s a well-executed moment that’s too few and far between in its supply. It’s once the movie gets loud and is pulled toward being obvious with its characterization that it grinds to a halt. A later scene of Phil screaming at his brother about Rose’s alcoholism comes off as goofy, like Nicolas Cage shouting the alphabet in Vampire’s Kiss.
The Power of the Dog is a bizarre film that’s all bark with little bite. It’s a collection of puzzlingly random scenes — one giant nothing burger. Nevertheless, there are certainly points of intrigue. For one, the animalistic quality of its camerawork sprinkles in close-ups of character movement, such as Phil tightening a rawhide lasso or Peter picking at his comb to highlight the male gaze and tension of its story. But it’s all to fool you into thinking that it’s more interesting than it is. It seems as though these filmmakers and actors were operating too much in the dark, and we’re left to collect all the bumps and bruises.