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Power of the Dog (Criterion Collection), The
New Zealand filmmaker Jane Campion's latest, The Power of the Dog, earned a host of rave reviews upon its Netflix premiere in late 2021. It is certainly the kind of slow, pretentious, perfunctorily showy film critics wank over, but audiences were much less impressed, dogging it in online reviews. I land somewhere in the middle. Based on Thomas Savage's 1967 novel of the same name, The Power of the Dog stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons as wealthy ranch-owning brothers Phil and George Burbank in 1920s Montana. Phil is cold and cruel to everyone except his men; while George is kind and friendly, earning the affections of Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), who runs a restaurant with her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Shot on location in New Zealand and sporting gorgeous cinematography by Ari Wegner, the film is certainly handsome. The acting and production design also are impressive. Campion's screenplay is less satisfying; and the languidly paced The Power of the Dog simply does not have enough to say to justify its 126 long minutes.
When the ranchers bring their staff for a rowdy dinner at Rose's restaurant, she is reduced to tears when Phil mocks the quiet, effeminate Peter. George chastises Phil for his behavior, but Phil brushes it off as lighthearted teasing. George and Rose soon fall in love, though Phil believes Rose is simply a gold-digger looking to reap the benefits of their ranch. Phil's demeanor toward Rose and Peter sends her into nervous fits, and she begins drinking heavily, particularly when George is out of town. Phil seemingly out of nowhere changes his tune on Peter after he returns home from school, which confuses Rose. We learn that Phil is homosexual, and his mentor Bronco Henry was likely much more.
In no way is The Power of the Dog a bad film; I just do not think it is as powerful or important as some critics labeled it. Phil is obviously a man in crisis with his own making; he must be the roughest, toughest, dirtiest, most profane man in the room to hid his own internal struggles. The most interesting question the film poses is whether Phil lusts after Peter or if he simply warms to him, believing that Peter is also struggling with his sexuality and fitting into the masculine norms of their society. These plot points are understandably ambiguous, but are more interesting than extended diversions with Rose and George. I understand why the film spends so much time doing this; the audience must feel why Phil is enraged at losing his brother to a woman. Even so, The Power of the Dog spends a lot of time treading water.
The acting is strong here; I totally believed these characters as portrayed on screen. The hate internal twists Phil's face into fits of torrid anger, and this is met by shock, betrayal and despair from Rose. Cumberbatch and Dunst are both excellent, and I maintain that Dunst is a far better actor than many people think she is. Plemons and Smit-McPhee also are strong here, and give emotive, intimate performances. I appreciate the mean-spirited mystery that unexpectedly pops up in the last reel, which temporarily drew me back into the story. Despite such handsome, finely tuned parts, The Power of the Dog does not serve a knockout punch as a whole. I appreciate the character struggles going on here and what Campion is trying to say. I just wish I cared.
Criterion unveils the film with a 2.28:1/1080p/AVC-encoded transfer that bests the Netflix HD broadcast stream. This is a handsomely shot film, though there was definitely some strong color grading done in post to make New Zealand look like Montana. The landscape shots are deep and clean thanks to the digital photography, but the aspect ratio gives a nicely filmic presentation. There is no added grain, so the film occasionally looks a little sterile for a Western. Even so, close-ups reveal strong fine-object detail and texture in the impressively accurate costumes and sets. Much of the film is shot in dimly lit interiors, and the Blu-ray handles black levels and shadow detail well. I suspect the 4K UHD version of this is a bit more impressive, but this is a solid HD presentation.
This is a quiet film, but the disc offers a Dolby Atmos mix that I sampled in its 7.1 Dolby TrueHD downgrade form. Dialogue is perfectly clear, whether delivered from the center channel or surrounds. Light ambient effects waft through the surround speakers, and Jonny Greenwood's score is given appropriate weight. All elements are appropriately balanced, and this is natural, effective presentation. A 5.1 Dolby Digital mix and English SDH subtitles are also included.
PACKAGING AND EXTRAS:
This single-disc release arrives in Criterion's typical clear case with two-sided artwork and a multi-page booklet. Criterion includes a number of features that appear to have been produced by Netflix. Behind the Scenes with Jane Campion (17:31/HD), an extended interview with the director; Reframing the West (28:14/HD), with cast and crew interviews; The Women Behind The Power of the Dog (23:30/HD), a roundtable with Campion, Dunst, and crew; Anatomy of a Score (13:25/HD), an audio interview with Campion and Greenwood; Annie Proulx (13:18/HD), a chat with "Brokeback Mountain" author Annie Proulx about the influence of Savage's novel; and the Trailer (2:09/HD).
Critics loved The Power of the Dog, particularly the performance of Benedict Cumberbatch. I appreciate the themes, acting and craft behind the camera here, but the movie is cold and often uninteresting. This Criterion Collection release is excellent, and fans should absolutely pick it up. Before you do that, give the film a watch on Netflix or Rent It.
William lives in Burlington, North Carolina, and looks forward to a Friday-afternoon matinee.