Release Date – 19th November 2021, Cert – 12, Run-time – 2 hours 7 minutes, Director – Jane Campion
Patronising rancher Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) finds his home-life disturbed when his far less domineering brother George (Jesse Plemons) marries boarding-room owner Rose (Kirsten Dunst), bringing her son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who Phil also torments, along with them.
The Power Of The Dog’s composer Jonny Greenwood stated in an interview with Variety “to me, the banjo can be a dark and sinister instrument”. It’s this darker side to the plucked-instrument which is demonstrated in the film. Whereas it might normally be associated with something more jaunty and joyful, think Kermit The Frog lightly singing Rainbow Connection, in writer-director Jane Campion’s latest it’s placed in the hands of rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch). He’s picking away in the dark shadows, already having proved himself to be a looming figure full of spite for anyone who isn’t a tough male just as himself. He’s the complete opposite of his brother George (Jesse Plemons), a much friendlier figure who appears to be embarrassed by, and deeply apologetic for, Phil.
When George marries widowed boarding-room owner Rose (Kirsten Dunst), bringing home both her and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) tensions and fury begin to rise within Phil. Despite having already frequently patronising and tormenting the pair, particularly Peter, when serving him food at their inn, he dials up the behaviour that clashes violently with the way he chooses to live his life. The film focuses on such interactions between Phil and Rose or Peter, particularly within the mid-section of the piece, with much of the arc being made up of vignettes detailing them. Instead of any overall narrative arc the characters develop, if at all, off screen. We jump forwards in time to see the change that has been undergone since the ending of the previous chapter and how things are now playing out, before moving on again to the next simple, extended chapter.
This makes for a slow-burn that while initially interesting in the way that it depicts its characters begins to slightly lose the viewer due to the lack of visible development occurring in the moment. It’s what makes the mid-section feel somewhat lengthy and a much slower burn than it perhaps is. There are elements and details that manage to keep your interest, not just the sinister banjo (although that is a highlight), but perhaps not as much in terms of change in characters until the third act where things begin to turn around. The relationship between Phil and Peter becomes more of a focus, at a point where it doesn’t quite feel too late but almost quite sudden. Because we haven’t seen what has occurred in the gap in-between there are certain decisions or moments that while interesting and adding to the late-stage development of the film and the characters within it, you almost want to see more of what has led up to this. More of an overall narrative, or feeling of character development, rather than the vignettes that we do see – of largely interactions that build up to the eventual change and development.
The characters themselves certainly have potential. There’s enough detail within them and the interactions certainly pose themselves as a point of interest to keep you in more than just the detailed scenery of the world – displayed in a handful of early pan-shots that truly immerse you in the setting, closed in by the surrounding circle of hills. However, it’s as the slow pacing is felt and the chaptered nature really comes through that you begin to disengage from the piece to then gradually reengage as a new point is brought into the mix that makes us questions Phil’s real attitudes and mindset in the next stage of the piece. Perhaps a second viewing is in order, to allow the detail of the characters to wash over me rather than the pacing and nature of the plotting and development. It’s certainly not a bad film, and it does have its moments at the start, end and at a number of points in the generally slow and divided by middle. However, on first viewing The Power Of The Dog almost leaves you wanting more, in terms of what you haven’t seen, to give what you have seen that extra bit of interest and intrigue.
As The Power Of The Dog appears to become more about character interactions rather than their development the slow burn of the chaptered structure is felt. However, either side of this there are moments of interest that keep you in place in the visually striking nature of the piece.