The exploration of relationships and the individuals within them can be a highly effective avenue for cinematic stories. If approached correctly, the complex personalities and emotions of mankind can allow for a narrative that excels in many ways. Written and directed by Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog is a captivating journey into the lives of flawed people in a by-gone era. While it may not handle all its themes with the grace that they deserve, the impressive cast is able to elevate the material well beyond its impediments.
When a man brings home a new wife and son, his immature brother responds with behaviour that begins to cause a rift between all involved. Benedict Cumberbatch is our leading actor. He is supported by Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst.
As we make our way through The Power of the Dog’s chapters, set to a splendid score by Jonny Greenwood, we spend the majority of our time with Benedict Cumberbatch. As expected, he is quite magnificent in his role but it is the writing beneath the performance that is equally excellent. Early hints position Cumberbatch’s character as an imposing man with a discernible villainous quality. However, the beauty of this film is the way that it is able to project this initial image before letting us take a peek behind the curtain.
We soon learn that this individual is more childish than threatening yet he still manages to cause havoc with his actions. He appears underdeveloped in some ways, choosing a juvenile existence over one that most would expect for a man of his age. Despite his frequently annoying behaviour, we do eventually peel back the layers of his personality and begin to empathise with him. It is at this point that the movie extends beyond previous boundaries to break expectations.
The story itself is always interesting. In fact, some last-minute revelations paint the entire picture in a new light, adding details that make us reflect on previous acts in a brand-new way. However, as mentioned, the characters are the best part of the movie. We have touched on Cumberbatch’s fantastic performance but the rest of the cast is just as good. Kodi Smit-McPhee is notably exceptional and the man he plays is well-written too. Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons are brilliant as well but it must be mentioned that the story forgets about them at a certain point. They are a focal point within the first 30 minutes but thereafter the film shifts focus and unfortunately forgets to develop them further.
This is a feature made of many themes, ideas and character traits. It handles some well yet stumbles when it comes to others. In terms of the positives, there are some characters that exhibit hints that they may be Autistic (or on the spectrum). It does this respectfully and in a manner that contributes to the narrative. Jealousy and resentment are other topics that are addressed convincingly. Sadly, on the negative side, the film often falters in its portrayal of sexuality. What should be undertones are glaringly obvious visual metaphors. The movie clearly thinks that it is being subtle here but the messaging will be obvious to almost every viewer. This doesn’t diminish the characters too much but it does lessen the weight of some key scenes.
The Power of the Dog is a delightful display of top-class acting within a story that maintains intrigue for the full 126-minute runtime. There are certainly some rough elements around the edges but the film as a whole is an extraordinary one that will likely receive recognition during the 2022 awards season.