[Screen It]


(2021) (Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst) (R)

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Drama: Brotherly cattle ranchers of the 1920s react in radically different ways toward a widowed restaurant proprietress and her awkward teenage son.

It's 1925 and brothers Phil (BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH) and George Burbank (JESSE PLEMONS) are wealthy cattle ranchers who live and work in Montana. While George is more refined, civilized, and nice to others, Phil is comfortable as an unwashed and abrasive cowboy, much like the ranch hands who work for them. Thus, when they stop over at a remote outpost and eat at the local restaurant, they react differently to the widowed proprietress, Rose Gordon (KIRSTEN DUNST), and her teenage son, Peter (KODI SMIT McPHEE).

While Phil views the socially awkward boy as not being manly enough -- thus upsetting him and his mother -- George is more compassionate. So much so that he quickly marries her and has her and Peter move into their ranch house, something that doesn't sit well with Phil. As that plays out, Phil suddenly has an abrupt change in his behavior, although it's unclear if that's a softening of his heart or something far more menacing.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10

There are lots of old sayings designed to keep people out of harm's way. Don't play with fire is one, which makes perfect sense. As do those related to animals, such as "let sleeping dogs lie" and "don't poke the bear." The latter obviously applies to a host of other animals, including certain humans.

That's certainly the case regarding the stern, bitter, and angry cattle rancher who appears as one of the major characters in "The Power of the Dog," director Jane Campion's return to the director's seat for the first time in twelve years and nearly three decades after being the first female director to take home the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival for "The Piano" (for which she also received an Oscar nomination as best director).

Adapting the 1967 novel of the same name by Thomas Savage, Campion works as both director and screenwriter in this Western that was actually shot in New Zealand rather than the story's setting of 1925 Montana. And in telling the tale of two decidedly different brothers, the woman one marries, and her teenage son who draws the derision of the male ranch hands, Campion not only has some of her characters playing with a symbolic fire, but she's also using a slow burn approach to tell this story.

That will be like catnip (to mix my cinematic animal metaphors) to highfalutin critics and art-house aficionados alike, but will likely have the average moviegoer wondering what all the critical fuss is about when otherwise trying not to fall asleep. I found myself in the middle, appreciating the performances and various tech credits but also finding the film repeatedly in danger of running out of material fuel to keep that fire burning.

The brothers are Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons), a duo that are so different they'd seemingly come from different parents. Phil enjoys being a cowboy in all of that lifestyle's visceral and cultural trappings. He's a real man's man, a prototype, if you will, of the old Marlboro Man who'd make his first appearance several decades later. He enjoys being dusty and dirty and castrating bulls without gloves.

George, on the other hand -- and who Phil repeatedly calls (in a non-loving way) "fatso" -- is more of an English gentleman type. He rides along with the rest as they move their herd of cattle, but does so impeccably dressed and without the need to drink with the men or cavort with the local ladies of the night.

And thus, when they stop for the evening in a small outpost and Phil belittles both the widowed restaurant proprietress, Rose (Kirsten), and her not manly enough teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit McPhee), -- for God's sakes, he makes paper flowers as table decorations for his mom -- it's George who comforts her. Not to mention, in the blink of an eye in terms of storytelling time, he also marries her.

With Phil seeing her as nothing more than a gold digger and her boy a "Nancy" who should be routinely harassed and embarrassed, the stage would seem set for something or someone to eventually be destroyed as the slow burn story and aura eventually engulf everything. And with Phil suddenly deciding to take the boy under his wing, things get hotter as we don't initially know why.

Has he turned over a new leaf? Does he see something of his younger self in the teen? Or is he planning something truly despicable that will be revealed in the third act? Tune in next week, same dog time, some dog channel.

It's all very pretty to behold (thanks to those award-worthy tech credits, most notably Ari Wegner's cinematography), but I have to admit that it didn't take any fire under my seat to figure out the explanation. That said, I will admit I was somewhat surprised by the film taking a sudden turn and then ending, as if everyone needed to get out of the editing booth due to a fire alarm going off. And maybe that's part of the reason I ended up moderately bored with the overall effort. Then again, there's that slow-burn approach that left my attention span simmering, and not in the best way.

Better for critics and viewers who like arthouse over mainstream offerings, "The Power of the Dog" gets only a woof above average from me. It rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed December 10, 2021 / Posted December 31, 2021

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