The reputation a filmmaker earns on an acclaimed film can last a long time. Jane Campion won an Oscar for writing 1993’s The Piano, an award that has kept her name golden among cinephiles even though she’s only made four narrative feature films (three of which she wrote) in the nearly 30 years since. After taking a detour into TV in the 2010s, she’s back with her first film in 12 years, The Power of the Dog.
The film centers on two rancher brothers, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons), who live in 1920s Montana. Phil is the brash, hands-on, get-in-the-dirt worker, while George is the quiet money guy. When George meets and quickly marries Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), bringing home both her and her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Phil ratchets up his already temperamental demeanor, tormenting anyone in his general vicinity.
Written and directed by Campion and filmed in her native New Zealand, the film looks as beautiful as viewers have come to expect from the filmmaker throughout her career. The landscapes, especially the Burbanks’ ranch where flatlands seem to burst into mountains out of nowhere, are a sight to behold, and Campion captures them in all their glory.
Unfortunately, that’s the best that can be said about this slog of a film that makes almost no sense at all. It’s clear that Phil has a disdain for Rose, whom he drives to drink, and Peter, whom he views as weak and effeminate. But why he feels such hatred for them is never clear, and so he’s full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Likewise, George and Rose’s “romance,” if you can call it that, comes out of nowhere and has close to zero chemistry, which is strange since Dunst and Plemons are married in real life.
The film is broken up into chapters for some odd reason, even though nothing that happens at the beginning or end of those chapters, save for the very end of the film, necessitates doing so. Campion simply meanders through the lives of her characters, showing things like Peter making paper flowers or Phil castrating a bull to emphasize their personalities. Characters start to change, but why they do is never communicated to the audience.
Cumberbatch gives his all to his performance — he reportedly got nicotine poisoning three times during filming in pursuit of authenticity — and he remains compelling even if you don’t understand why his character is doing what he’s doing. Plemons and McPhee are fine, if uninspiring, while Dunst is not served well at all by her role, which seems to offer nothing but over-the-top moments as the film goes along.
Some may watch The Power of the Dog and see a film that has much to offer. I, on the other hand, see a baffling narrative made only slightly watchable because of the pretty scenery and a fiery performance by Cumberbatch.
The Power of the Dog is now playing in select theaters. It debuts on Netflix on December 1.