The Power of the Dog: Throwing off vibes

I had heard about The Power of the Dog several times in passing before I saw it. Mostly what I heard was that it’s good, it’s on Netflix, and I should watch it before finding out too much about it.

So I decided one afternoon just to put it on. And, man! Was it weird!

This movie was my third brush with Jane Campion. I first experienced one of her films in 2015 when my husband and I decided to watch all the Best Picture nominees from 1994. We watched The Piano and spent most of the runtime in a state of confusion. We talked about it pretty extensively after it was over. And then I thought about it pretty much nonstop for days on end.

I think it’s pretty telling that after watching the ’94 Best Picture nominees, The Piano is the one that lodged itself the most firmly in my mind. This is the year of The Fugitive, Schindler’s List, and The Remains of the Day. These are good movies! And memorable ones too. But somehow a weird little film about a woman and her piano and New Zealand is what stuck with me. (Apologies to the last nominee from 1994, In the Name of the Father. For some reason, we never got around to watching it.)

A few months ago, I was looking for a movie to watch after having taken the day off work. A newsletter I like had recommended Bright Star, which had been on my Netflix queue for approximately five thousand years. So I popped it on.

Then I proceeded to think about nothing but Bright Star for about three days. This, of course, included in-depth Googling about John Keats and Fanny Brawne. (I learned that so many people in Keats’ family other than him also tied of tuberculosis. And that several people in Fanny’s family did as well. I now want to read a giant nonfiction tomb about the history of tuberculosis.)

Aside from the biographical reading, though, I also just kept thinking about the movie itself. It was gorgeous as hell and I highly recommend it.

Knowing that The Power of the Dog was made by the same woman who made both The Piano and Bright Star completely tracks for me. Bright Star isn’t quite as weird as the other two, but all three have an extremely strong voice. And they are all shot in a really specific way. And they all kind of…linger after they are done.

Rider on a horse set small against a vast landscape including large hills.
The movie is basically this. But at the same time deeply unsettling.

I found a lot to like about The Power of the Dog even though it was weirding me out at every juncture. The performances were very good (and what a delight to see Kirsten Dunst!). The strange menacing energy that Benedict Cumberbatch put off in this movie really worked for me. When I followed up watching this movie by listening to the episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour covering it, I loved that one of the panelists said a sense of imminent dread pervades the entire film. Yes! It definitely does.

I also did some Googling after watching because I can’t stop myself. I quickly discovered that this movie is actually an adaptation of a book with the same name. That book, by the way, is written by a man named Thomas Savage. This is incredibly fitting and I love that fact.

The fact that the move was an adaptation initially surprised me. But thinking it through, I do think it makes sense. Using all the information you can find in a book allowed Campion to sort of infuse the movie with this sense of being lived in. You can tell all the characters have a lot going on even if you don’t know what the hell that is. This might be laid out more explicitly in a narrative form that allows for things like that. But my guess is that the richness of the book allowed the film to do a lot while also having very little stated out loud.

For that reason, I do consider this movie to be more of a vibe than anything else. You’ll get that sense of dread, the weird malice coming off of Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, and then a whole lot of other uncomfortable moments that give The Power of the Dog a distinctive feel.

Also, I will say that I thought the pay off at the end of the movie was effective.

Will you like The Power of the Dog? Couple things to consider:

  • Have you liked other Jane Campion films? If so, I think it’s likely you’ll be onboard for this one.
  • Do you like a movie that has more vibes than plot? If you require a more straightforward plot structure, this one might not be for you.
  • Do you like Westerns? Then you might like this movie depending on what you like about Westerns. A John Wayne movie, this is not. If you like a subversion of Westerns or something exploring the prototypical Western story, I’d say give it a try.
  • Are you a Kirsten Dunst fan or Benedict Cumberbatch fan? Probably worth a watch, then. I’m actually not the world’s biggest Cumberbatch fan, but I don’t actively dislike him, and I thought he was good here. (Although I cannot state it strongly enough how deeply unsettling he is.)

I will also say that there has been some discussion and criticism of how sexuality is portrayed in this movie. I personally thought the film explored some of these ideas more in the exploration of what rigid masculinity and gender roles do to people who don’t fit within those boundaries and less as falling prey to the queer villain archetype. That being said, you might think differently! So just throwing it out there.

If you have the time and any of the above sounds intriguing to you, I’d say go for it. If nothing else, you’ll get two hours of vibes and some impressive shots of the gorgeous countryside.

(Go read more about my opinions on the Academy Awards if you want.)

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