Prestige pictures, movies that are made to garner critical acclaim and win awards, are often more subtle and intellectual than their blockbuster and more commercial peers —or at least they pretend to be. They are usually helmed by a more singular voice and make attempts to respect their audiences by not spelling things out. Some movie-goers appreciate a movie that behaves almost like a puzzle, and they take pride in their success in solving it. But some prestige pictures can at times leave so few clues that the experience can become frustrating, and this is the case with Jane Campion’s (“The Piano”) “Power of the Dog.”
That being said, the three central performances are all forceful and appropriate. Kirsten Dunst (“Melancholia”) as Rose is reserved and clearly full of opinions that she holds back to remain civil with her domineering brother-in-law Phil, who does not hide his distaste for her. As the movie goes on, her discomfort with his presence is communicated through looks and movement alone. Kodi Smit-McPhee (“ParaNorman”) plays her son Peter and is centered and seems very astute to the audience. The standout performance is the much advertised Benedict Cumberbatch (“Spider-Man: No Way Home”) as the previously-mentioned brother-in-law Phil Burbank. He is the most expressive and dynamic character, and his malice and desire for control is visible from everything from the way he walks to the slightest facial twitches.
This film is visually gorgeous and crafted with a precise understanding of movement and blocking. The way its atmosphere is built with meticulous and specific editing is comparable to other perfectionist auteurs such as David Fincher (“Gone Girl”). But Jane Campion has a style of her own, and it shows here: She uses every tool at her disposal to create a mood that is unique to this story and to her directorial approach. Cinematographer Ari Wegner’s (“Zola” ) use of light and shadows helps establish the power dynamics that are necessary for this film to function, and wide, landscape shots help construct the Western setting. Jonny Greenwood’s score elevates this, evoking memories of his past work — the orchestration resembles “There Will Be Blood” — and is equally important in building a tense, hostile atmosphere.
All these factors combined make for a relentless, but slow and deliberate two hours of the characters (mostly Phil) doing what they can to assert their will and control people. In the first half or so, this works wonders, creating an intensity that is difficult to pull away from — watching Phil slowly and indirectly impose his will on Rose is hypnotizing. But during the second half, when the film focuses on the interactions between Peter and Phil, some of the major twists and turns of the plot are so subtle and glossed over that the ending comes across as weak at best, and incoherent at worst. Subtlety and understatement are almost necessities in modern award-season films, but there is a point where not spelling out every mystery can cease to be intelligent and rewarding and instead become obnoxious and unpleasant for the viewer.
There are a lot of impressive techniques and skills expressed in “The Power of the Dog,” but the true story is too shrouded behind layers of pseudo-intellectualism, which keeps the viewing experience from being fruitful and fulfilling. It’s obvious that Campion and company wanted to create a masterpiece, but ironically they would have likely been successful if they weren’t so focused on making one artificially.
Daily Arts Writer Alvin Anand can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.