Putting the dog down.
There’s a metaphor hiding behind the mountains of The Power Of The Dog. Some people can see a dog hiding within the curves, crevices, and shadows of the canyonside. Others can only see the mountain. Regardless of whether or not you can see the dog, it doesn’t change the fact that two people are just staring aimlessly at a mountain like madmen, searching for something that might not even be there.
Ironically enough, this plot point is the perfect metaphor for The Power Of The Dog itself. Like the old west, The Power Of The Dog possesses a lot of beauty, a lot of darkness, and a lot of danger burrowing beneath the sands of Montana. Just like the countryside, there’s a lot to appreciate with the sheer scale and scenery that we witness here. But stick around for too long, and it’ll eventually swallow you whole. That’s pretty much what happens with The Power Of The Dog: the main characters stare at the mountains for far too long, looking for deeper meaning in a place where there is none.
Based on a 1967 western novel by Thomas Savage, The Power of the Dog follows two rancher brothers as they toil day and night taking care of their cattle and farm. The elder brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is still mourning the loss of his mentor, Henry Bronco. His brother George (Jesse Plemons) marries a widow named Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and adopts her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil is a sordid, distrusting person who thinks Rose is only after George’s money. Rose is still grieving her former husband’s demise while battling an alcohol addiction. Things simmer like a soft boil until the tensions rise to the point of no return for the Burbank household.
Well, “tension” may not be the right word to use here. More like melodramatically prolonged stares and pauses that are so drawn out and overbearing that it makes after-school detention seem more interesting. When The Power Of The Dog opens up, it promises a dark, complex narrative filled with depth and deception — one where long-hidden secrets remained buried until one curious teenager brings them to light. This film… is not that. What we get instead is a long, dull, boring, flavorless experience that’s so bland and uninteresting that it makes unsalted crackers look exciting.
Oh sure, the film is perfectly functional. From a purely technical standpoint, I have no grievances with the film whatsoever. The costuming and production design is accurate and on-point to the era the film is portraying. The cinematography by Ari Wegner is lush and vivid and evokes a sense of loneliness and isolation. And while it is simple and bare-bones, the acoustic score by Jonny Greenwood carries on with an uneasy progression, with its strings plucking in an agitated manner as if Phil Burbank were playing them himself.
The actors also do a really good job with the roles they are given and are convincing in their portrayals of an unnerved family losing its sense of tranquility. Kirsten Dunst has a mesmerizing return to form after leaving the film industry for four years, playing a tortured, anguished character who is torn by her motherhood, her alcoholism, and her trauma she’s experienced since moving in with the Burbanks. Kodi Smit-McPhee plays an equally layered character with several shades, feeling warm and inviting in one beat and cold and calculating in another. And Benedict Cumberbatch masterfully plays the meanest bastard you’ve ever met, a man who will inflict great suffering on a family without hesitation but whose actions are contextualized through a great tragedy he experienced. Individually these characters are very interesting, and the cast realizes all of these roles to the best of their abilities.
The problem is the story they’re in is just not there. On paper, there’s an intricate and layered narrative hiding deep beneath The Power of the Dog’s muddy surface. But in execution, there’s no story at all — only characters that meander aimlessly from one point to another without any rhyme or reason, without any point or purpose, really without any sense of direction or destination. It isn’t merely the fact that The Power of the Dog is difficult to read. Quite the contrary — it is impossible to read. There is so much sleight of hand, so much implication, and so much interpretation that is required to understand this film that you would need to read the script while watching just to be able to follow what is even going on.
I say all this knowing that interpretation in and of itself is not a bad thing. Several films released from the past few years have required audiences to do the heavy lifting and were uniquely rewarding in their own way, whether it was Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life, Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, or Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Birdman and The Revenant. Even David Lowery’s recent The Green Knight, which I still profess was an extremely polarizing film, at least had an intriguing point and a purpose that the film was driving toward. The Power of the Dog doesn’t even have that. It drops its 304-page novel right onto audiences’ backs, shrugs its shoulders, says “make of that whatever you will” and then leaves. That’s not good filmmaking. That isn’t even storytelling. That’s a cinematic Rorschach test it’s forcing audiences to take without even doing the decency of providing them with a clear picture.
This is why the mountains are the perfect metaphor for the public’s reaction to The Power of the Dog. Some will see the point that The Power of the Dog is trying to make and fall in love with it. Others won’t see anything at all and will be flabbergasted as to how so many people can be drooling all over it. So, which is it? Is there a dog or isn’t there? I have a better question: who cares?