The Power of the Dog was for the longest time last year’s front-runner for Best Picture at the Oscars. Bafflingly, CODA seemed to become the favourite in the last week and amazingly won for what isn’t that far removed from a Disney Channel movie. However, neither film should’ve been in the conversation when Nightmare Alley, Licorice Pizza and Dune were clearly the actual best films and were all also nominated for Best Picture. Jane Campion did win the Best Director statue for The Power of the Dog, making her only the third woman in the Oscars’ history to win.
I’ve never been totally sold on Campion, and I absolutely loathe her most famous film, The Piano. She is overly academic in her approach to filmmaking, which often gets in her way of telling a compelling story. The Power of the Dog, however, is by far her best film of the features I’ve seen, even though it’s a deeply flawed film from the onset.
The biggest issue with the film is Benedict Cumberbatch, who while is giving it his all, is terribly miscast as this hyper-masculine ranch owner, Phil Burbank, who is holding a secret. Guy Pearce or Viggo Mortensen would’ve killed the role 20 years ago. Cumberbatch’s contemporaries Tom Hardy or Joel Edgerton would’ve been better in the part. Campion needed an actor who has a history of playing more masculine roles where the later reveal of the character’s true nature ends up being more of a twist—Hardy would’ve probably been my choice.
Kirsten Dunst is far and away the stand-out in the cast, but I really can’t think of a film where she was bad, even in fun fluff like Bring It On she is great. Dunst is an actress who doesn’t really have to say much to convey the inner life of her characters, which is completely what’s necessary here for Rose, the almost silent new wife of Phil’s brother George to whom Phil takes an instant dislike. I may have my issues with the film, but of the Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress, Dunst was robbed compared to the competition. Meth Damon, sorry… Jesse Plemons plays George, and as always is very reliable to give a strong performance. Kodi Smit-McPhee is one of the most consistently interesting younger actors at the moment, and he plays Rose’s son, who ends up becoming the thrust of the narrative. Thomasin McKenzie is a great actress, but is utterly wasted in the film, it’s almost baffling as to why she is here, because for an actress of her calibre she has nothing to do in the film. Keith Carradine also pops up, which gives this revisionist western some connective tissue to the revisionist westerns of the ’70s.
Sam Elliott got some flack for comments he made about the film that were perceived to be homophobic, and he later apologised. He was somewhat right, though: the cowboys all look like Chippendale dancers. In reality, they would’ve been covered in filth not so well chiseled. The film does get a boost from impressive cinematography by Ari Wegner, who tries her best to make the Maniototo plain in New Zealand look like Montana. The Power of the Dog is a solid film with some great performances, especially Dunst and Smit-McPhee, even though the casting of Cumberbatch is a serious misstep that clouds much of what is so good about the film.
The Criterion Collection Blu-Ray includes various interviews with Campion, a making-of documentary and an interview with writer Annie Proulx, who served as unofficial consultant on the script, Proulx wrote an introduction to the re-release of the source novel, and also wrote the short story that Brokeback Mountain is based on. The film adaptation of Brokeback Mountain does much of what The Power of the Dog tries to do, but much better. The trailer rounds off the extras on the disc, along with an essay in the accompanying booklet by Amy Taubin.