Script Review: 'The Power of the Dog'
The script for this movie, written and directed by the supremely talented Jane Campion...is bad. Quite bad actually. The film looks amazing, and everyone on screen is trying their hardest. But the script is bad. Let's explore why.
Without giving any spoilers, because I'm not that kinda guy - this is a movie set on a cattle ranch in Montana in 1925. The ranch is owned by 2 brothers - each very different from the other. I think the 'story' starts when one brother marries the widowed owner of the nearest town's restaurant, which upsets the other brother. Then when her college age son come to the ranch for the summer, more stuff happens.
If I sound vague, it's because there is very little story in here, and it's at least an hour before anything really develops. Which is a shame, because there are some lovely characters with some very detailed and nuanced character traits, very subtly revealed by Ms. Campion.
The script's problems are established early, and only get worse. Main characters - I'm talking above the title main - vanish completely for slabs of this script. Other main characters have almost nothing to do, apart from an oddly unearned yet suddenly convenient bout with alcoholism for Kirsten Dunst's character. (How does she get so many bottles of clearly labeled booze during prohibition in rural Montana???)
Her emotional journey starts looking like an actual journey then dissolves completely, to the point a fine actress is fawning over gloves and dropping to the ground like a silent film star. Her only real 'conflict' is with her husband's brother played by Benedict Cumberbatch - who at his most 'menacing', whistles and plays the banjo. The bastard. But even that vanishes like the snow in Montana that isn't there.
So many storylines were potentially started, then abandoned. The script keeps shifting, almost searching for an actual story to sink it's teeth into - which it finally does when the son 'Paul' arrives. I guess. But at that moment various character traits become exaggerated, the dramatic intensity lifts even higher with almost nothing in actual story or action to back it up. I mean - as soon as the dialogue clunkily reveals some of Benedict's character backstory, then makes a very unsubtle distinction between his 'public' persona and his 'private' interests - I mean come on now. And then his increasingly...let's go with 'friendly'...interactions with the young college boy are shot with intensity and feeling that do not match the script.
Imagine searing closeups, long pauses, lots of faraway looks into the distance as one person says 'I'm going to the supermarket, do you want anything?', and you get the idea. The visuals are dripping with anticipated tensions and dramatic possibilities the script never fully delivers.
This felt like a script waiting for it's ending. Which it clearly thinks is pretty cool, and worth hanging around for. So the glacial pace can be justified as 'nuanced'. The story holes are 'subtlety', and the lack of character depth - especially among every female character is...well I don't have a justification for that.
Thomasin McKenzie - the awesome star of 'JoJo Rabbit' is here too - and I'm not sure why. Great young actress, with a role reduced to such lines as 'I'll keep score' and 'Carrot?' Why is her character in this movie? What is she contributing to the overall story, character reveal, or even theme?
This script is a series of moments. Not a coherent feature film script. It is filled with beautiful vistas and imagery. But as a satisfying exploration of an aspect of the human condition, despite it's best intentions, this script fails badly. Adapting a book is never easy. But in times of trouble, maybe fall back on a sense of structure, or compelling/coherent emotional journeys, or at least an organic logic. There are scenes in this script that exist purely because the writer needs one character to learn something about another character, even if the manner of discovery is profoundly odd and a bit silly. And the overuse of cigarette rolling as some sort of device to convey various emotional states was...noticeable.
I love Jane Campion. She is a visionary director. And I truly hope the Production Designer and Director of Photography get Oscar nods. But this script does not do justice to the amazing cast and crew assembled, and as a result, 'The Power of the Dog' is frustrating, and disappointing.
- Tim Schildberger
'The Power of the Dog' is now available on Netflix and in select theatres.