The battle of wits has begun… after eighty minutes of bullying.
Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the lead cattleman on his Montana family ranch in the mid 1920s, and he doesn’t let his brother George (Jesse Plemons) forget it. George deals with clients and paperwork as the face of their cattle business, but he’s been distracted of late by innkeeper Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), perhaps secretly encouraged because Phil doesn’t approve of the widow or her “half-cooked” son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil takes his bitter disappointment out on the couple after George marries Rose in secret and funds Peter’s college prospects; while George is numb to Phil’s psychological warfare, Rose crawls into a bottle to cope. When Peter visits the unhappy family on a college break, the cattleman goes after the stoic young man as a fresh victim… before the discovery of one of Phil’s own secrets threatens his power.
The title’s context isn’t referring to “man’s best friend” but rather a Biblical reference to any vicious enemy deserving to be put down; the full understanding of the Psalm 22:20 verse may not be clear to the unfamiliar. Phil is an educated and capable man embodying the lone cowboy mystique who chooses to abuse others, ensuring such bullying is never directed toward himself. Moreover, Phil challenges those he torments to stand up to him, taking additional delight forcing those targets to relent. Peter, in contrast, appears socially awkward and out of sorts, even unresponsive to Phil’s threats; Phil assumes Peter must be “touched in the head” without consideration of the boy holding his own in college. Director Jane Campion’s adaptation of the fifty-year old novel by Thomas Savage is a brutal watch, but what is it trying to say?
“Too much time watching the bad guy win” is the inherent problem. Cumberbatch’s domination of screen time (to the actor’s credit) only serves to champion cruelty, unchallenged in his abuse with Rose suffering, George enduring, and everyone else laughing along with Phil… lest they earn his ire. This is your main character? Unlike “Breaking Bad” protagonist Walter White experiencing varying degrees of success (read: both wins and losses), it isn’t until Peter’s return that viewers receive any respite from Phil, and even then there’s no guarantee because of how bullies operate. Viewers receive what can be called “a resolution” by the time the credits roll, but the admittedly clever plot threading is unfulfilling; it’s not enough to balance Phil’s accountability.
Real-life couple Plemons and Dunst are reduced to placeholders, so there’s a question as to hiring them for these parts; all they’re given to do for two hours is look sad and/or apathetic. It might have been an interesting turn to have the story continue in Peter’s point of view — there’s a reason for Smit-McPhee’s casting hinted at in the opening narration — but that would have been much too vulgar a display of power. Of the two, Phil is amazingly more understandable, but the dynamic between these two men taken doesn’t allow room for another character to fill the time, leaving Phil to torture as he likes. As presented in film form, the more interesting story is where Peter ends up following his encounter with “the dog.”
Far from a Scrooge-like redemption story where the awfulness has purpose for changing the central character, the last-moment comeuppance for Phil doesn’t come close to measuring up. There are LGTBQ+ references within, more nudity than one would normally expect for a Western deconstruction and/or subversion, and a glimmer of sociopathic thought. Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel was considered among his best works, reportedly based in part upon his own experience growing up during the time period. At an age aligning more closely with Peter than the Burbank brothers for the time frame, the writer’s known tendency to base outsider characters unsuited to ranch life upon himself may be the most damning revelation: a thin revenge fantasy masquerading as a thought-provoking exposé.
The Power of the Dog is rated R for brief sexual content/full nudity and happily clocking in around two hours… but it feels like three.
Two skull recommendation out of four