Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons star as brothers who own a Montana cattle ranch but couldn’t be more different in the Western drama, The Power of the Dog. The film is set in 1925 and begins at the conclusion of a successful cattle drive, a time that should be one of celebration but turns out life-altering for the Burbank brothers.
Phil (Cumberbatch) and his brother, George (Plemons), join their ranch hands for a feast at the Red Mill restaurant at the conclusion of their annual cattle drive. When Phil bullies and insults Rose (Kirsten Dunst), the widowed owner of the establishment, and her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), to amuse himself and entertain his men, the kind-hearted George ends up comforting the distressed widow. He later rebukes his brother for his awful behavior.
George finds himself drawn to Rose and quickly decides to marry her and bring her home to the family’s ranch. This infuriates Phil who sees her as a dividing wedge between him and George.
Phil finds different ways to taunt Rose, including playing the same tune on his banjo that she tries but fails to play on George’s piano in preparation for an important dinner party. He also tosses sneers and disparaging comments her way whenever he can.
When Peter arrives at the ranch during the summer school break Rose fears Phil will find ways to ridicule and degrade him. At first, Phil does encourage his hired hands to bully and dismiss Peter whenever the young man is nearby. But gradually Phil starts to see something in Peter and takes him under his wing, teaching him how to ride a horse and even making him a lasso from rawhide. As Phil and Peter appear to start to bond and become mentor and student, Rose fears she’s losing her son to her worst enemy.
Written and directed by Jane Campion (The Piano, In the Cut), The Power of the Dog is a melodramatic Western that features a stellar performance by Benedict Cumberbatch but suffers greatly from sluggish pacing. Cumberbatch infuses the film with both energy and tension with his portrayal of the volatile, rugged, and boorish Phil Burbank who seems hellbent on ruining his brother’s marriage and driving Rose to her breaking point. It’s Cumberbatch’s performance that raises the film to an almost watchable level.
Jesse Plemons is pitch-perfect as George, the respectable, low-key, and dignified businessman who knows how to be a boss, a rancher, and how to impress and interact with the higher-class citizens of the state, including the governor. The only problem with Plemons’ performance is that in this particular film the chemistry’s missing between him and his real-life partner Kirsten Dunst which makes their scenes onscreen seem uncomfortable and forced.
The cinematography, production design, and costumes are extremely effective in bringing 1925 Montana to life up on the big screen. Unfortunately, the film’s unbearably ponderous pacing means many scenes are drawn out and seem to move slower than a snail’s pace. The second and third acts are especially sluggish. It’s only late in the film when Phil begins to become Peter’s mentor that The Power of the Dog picks up the pace and becomes interesting.
Despite a remarkable performance by Benedict Cumberbatch and a solid first and final act, what could have been a much more intense and suspenseful film is bogged down by a painfully stagnant pace.
MPAA Rating:R (Full Nudity|Brief Sexual Content)
Release Date: November 17, 2021 limited theatrical release, Dec. 1st on Netflix
Running Time: 2 hours 7 minutes