Passionate performances and brilliant mise-en-scène level up The Power of the Dog – a stunningly rich and powerful psychodrama from award-winning director Jane Campion. Shot in her native New Zealand, the film is a welcome return to the big screen for the Kiwi auteur after a 12-year absence and marks only her eighth full-length feature.
Campion’s script, based on Thomas Savage’s seminal 1967 revisionist western, follows two adult, ranch-owning brothers in 1920’s Montana. Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons), polar opposites in both looks and temperament, run a successful family business based around horses and livestock. They’ve got ranch-hands a-plenty, a striking mansion in the foothills, and a few servants to make things more comfortable. What they don’t seem to have are friends or anyone, really, besides each other. George, resplendent in his suits and hats, is the more mild-mannered and civilized of the two, preferring accounting to getting truly stuck in and dirty. Charismatic Phil, on the other hand, quite literally bathes in mud, preferring to roll his cigarettes with one hand and castrate bulls with the other, provided he’s not sniping or snarking. They share little except a room and by the time we catch up with them at the start of a cattle drive, there is already an uncomfortable, simmering tension between the two. We’re able to infer quite a bit about the history of their relationship thanks to Campion and her actors’ ability to communicate so much while doing so very little.
The brothers and their cowhands make a stop in the one-horse town of Beech on their way to market, availing themselves of dinner and rooms at the Red Mills Inn, an establishment belonging to a young widow. Rose (Kirsten Dunst) runs things with the help of her fine-boned and intellectual teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), an aspiring doctor whose mere existence provides ample fodder for Phil’s performative cruelty. The macho, homophobic bully preys on a successive number of Peter’s traits like a shopper checking items off a list. Instead of reacting, the young man turns the other cheek even though the encounter devastates his mother. As the group boozes it up at the saloon next door, we learn of Phil’s hero-worship of a man named Bronco Henry. A Montana legend, the now-deceased cowboy taught the Burbank brothers everything they needed to know about being a man. It’s clear from the get-go that Phil has spent the majority of his life trying to emulate him.
Unfortunately for Phil, and soon for everyone else involved, George pays Rose a visit to apologize and, perhaps surprising even himself, proposes marriage soon after. The newlyweds soon return to the ranch, eventually bringing Peter with them, disrupting the comfortable routine that Phil has created and cultivated. Furious, he embarks on a campaign of menace and cruelty designed to punish Rose and to humiliate Peter. As time passes, Phil begins to take the boy under his wing, an ambiguous decision that will change all of their lives forever.
For all his initial bluster and outward viciousness, it becomes apparent fairly quickly that there is far more to Phil Burbank than brutal bullishness. Together, Campion and Cumberbatch delve deeply into this character who has turned his back on the world before it could turn on him. He craves control and continuity, for his own sake: the devil he knows rather than the devil he doesn’t. He searches for an understanding that he will never truly have, not while he lives in a time and place where being anything other than a poster boy for hetero-masculinity will see you ostracized, if not killed. As the film approaches its climax, we are shown small glimpses of the fragility that lies beneath his ferocity – the man he used to be, or might’ve been, before he shored up the walls around him. Cumberbatch deftly handles each of these moments – the cutting and the quiet – with equal importance, and seems more than comfortable playing against type in his chaps amid the cattle. This is a career-best performance for the award-winning actor and it’s not hard to see why Campion felt confident in casting him as her Phil.
The rest of the main cast more than keep up and Smit-McPhee particularly proves himself an actor to be reckoned with. The young thesp ably plays his cards close to his chest and keeps us all guessing as to Peter’s true motivations. Rose gives Dunst her best material in years, allowing the actress a chance to truly inhabit this woman undone by circumstance. Likewise Jesse Plemons gives his all as the gentle but ultimately frustrating George.
Campion is at the top of her game too. Her unflinchingly lush lens and her impressive ability to articulate even the most complex shades of human emotion mean Savage’s novel could not have landed in better hands. She imbues every creak of leather and every soft exhale with import. The shadows and whispers all hold layered meaning. Her impressive effort is bolstered by Ari Wegner’s masterful cinematography and Jonny Greenwood’s compelling and emotional score.
From its opening beats to its dramatic conclusion, The Power of the Dog proves a nuanced and quietly-thrilling look at identity, masculinity, and isolation. It’s a triumphant return for Jane Campion and serves as yet another excellent example of why she remains among the greatest working filmmakers of our day.
The Power of the Dog screened as part of TIFF 2021, which ran from September 9 to 18. It will stream on Netflix starting December 1.