Based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name, Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” is a crafty anti-Western with all the visual flavor of John Ford, Sam Peckinpah, or Delmer Daves. But at its core Campion’s film (she both writes and directs) is a slow-boiling psychodrama that seeks to explore the darker shades of human nature. It’s a master-class of tone management and the patient steady rhythm of Campion’s storytelling keeps us glued to every frame even as the story butts heads with itself later on.
With New Zealand posing as Montana, the movie is set in 1925. The Burbank brothers, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons), run a profitable cattle business off their sprawling family ranch in the heart of beautiful Big Sky Country. While they’re good business partners, they couldn’t be more opposite. George is the gentlemanly sort; mild-mannered and soft-spoken but with a deceptively fervid aspiration to climb up the social ladder. He’s sensitive and gentle, tending to the business side of the ranch while brushing off his brother’s relentless insults.
Phil is a hardened cowboy whose cauterized emotions have turned him into a cold calloused brute. With thick brown chaps, a thick layer of grime caked on his face, and a constant scowl, Phil moves with a stiff-shouldered gait as if forcefully projecting a distinct image. His ranch-hands follow him like disciples, listening close as he recalls the wisdom of his late mentor and friend Bronco Henry. His men also channel their alpha-male leader’s bullish antagonism towards anyone who doesn’t meet their hyper-masculine standard.
Phil and George live on a slippery slope. But the tension between them reaches a simmer while taking a herd of cattle to market. The brothers and their cowhands visit a restaurant owned by a young widow named Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her awkward teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Repulsed by what he perceives as weakness, Phil pounces on the shy lanky boy, viciously mocking his slight lisp and burning an intricate paper flower Peter made as a centerpiece. It’s an unsettling sequence, but also one that highlights Campion’s remarkable control.
Later, a sympathetic George returns to the restaurant to see Rose and apologize for his brother’s cruelty. It sparks a sweet romance that eventually leads to marriage. With Peter off to medical school, Rose sells her restaurant and moves to the ranch. This triggers a jealous and embittered Phil who makes it his goal to crush his brother’s newfound marital bliss. To Phil, Rose (and later Peter) are threats to his manly order of things. That conflict drives the remainder of the film and sends the movie careening down a path with no happy ending in sight.
While some find a critique of masculinity in nearly every movie these days, Campion provides one of the most vivid and clear-eyed examinations yet. She uses Cumberbatch’s commanding and at times terrifying performance to not only reveal what warped manhood looks like, but to also show the destruction it can leave in its path. Cumberbatch’s Phil is a blunt force with a domineering aura and his methodical psychological assault can be hard to watch. Dunst gives a devastating portrayal of a woman who is both a victim of Phil’s unyielding harassment and of the era’s oppressive societal norms.
Things only intensify once Peter arrives to spend the summer at the ranch. Smit-McPhee’s poker-faced presence and (again) Campion’s confident control keeps the character at an arm’s length. This makes Peter impossible to read; every bit as enigmatic as he is peculiar. It also makes him a prime target for Phil’s abuse. With a tormented Rose withering away from depression and alcoholism, the story shifts towards Phil and Peter. Meanwhile Plemons gets the short end of the stick as George (sadly) all but vanishes for much of the second half.
While the film’s exploration of masculinity is a good one, it’s undone a bit by the implications of another theme that comes fully into focus late in the story. I won’t spoil it for those unfamiliar with Savage’s book, but it’s a “twist” that adds a new layer to Phil while inadvertently giving him an excuse for his emotional savagery. I doubt that’s the intent and it won’t play that way for some, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that Campion’s attempt at adding richness to her story ends up undermining one of its biggest strengths.
Tangled themes aside, “The Power of the Dog” ends on a strong note as the movie’s Psalm-inspired title clicks firmly into place. It’s a finish that again showcases Campion’s deft management of her scenes and her audience. Accompanied by the painterly beauty of Ari Wegner’s cinematography (among the year’s best), the simple yet haunting Jonny Greenwood score, and superb performances top to bottom, Campion has crafted a striking Western with all the leathery textures of the genre, but with the assured and probing touch of an auteur. “The Power of the Dog” is now showing in limited release and streams on Netflix starting December 1st.