Watching director Jane Campion‘s “The Power of the Dog” may be a very slow and laborious task for audiences seeking escapism at the theater, but fans of historical dramas, westerns, and artistic beauty will find plenty to savor. Adapted from author Thomas Savage’s 1968 novel, this visually poetic film is a slow-moving character study of loneliness, masculinity, and cruelty in 1920s Montana.
Set in the American West, the film tells the story of two brothers: the bitter, domineering Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), and the gentle, restrained George (Jesse Plemons). Phil is a charismatic rancher, popular (if sometimes intimidating) to his fellow cowboys. When his brother brings home a new wife (Kirsten Dunst) and her effeminate son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Phil mocks and torments them until secrets are uncovered about repressed sexuality, love, and what it means to be a man. It’s a tale of jealousy and loneliness that’s violent, unsettling, and inhumane, with themes that could slip into a modern day setting just as easily as its historical one.
Campion gets A-list performances from her cast of mostly B-list actors, but my least favorite turn — and I realize this is an extremely unpopular opinion among my fellow critics — comes from Cumberbatch. The actor has an impressive and enviable range, but it feels like he is playing to the balcony in some scenes. He may be well cast, but his delivery is unintentionally funny at times. Dunst and McPhee are both standouts in their restrained, challenging roles, however.
The film’s greatest strength lies in its knockout cinematography from Ari Wegner. The use of light and shadow, the dusty, natural hues of the vast landscape, and the complex visual composition combine to make this a true feast for the eyes. Wegner captures an elegant brutality and sense of isolation that handsomely frames the major themes of the story. This is one of the most handsome-looking films of the year, by a long shot.
While I am not a huge fan of “The Power of the Dog” overall, the film’s prestige lies in its powerful tandem of Campion and Wegner. I truly hope these two women will work together on future projects, because their unique styles complement each other in the best way possible. I cannot commend the cinematography and direction enough. This is an incredibly gorgeous piece of cinema.