Director Jane Campion and Benedict Cumberbatch bring complex emotions to the West
This review of The Power of the Dog was originally posted in conjunction with the film’s premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. It has been updated for the film’s November theatrical release and its release to Netflix on Dec. 1.
There’s a scene in Jane Campion’s evocative, arresting Western The Power of the Dog — her first film in 12 years after turning to TV with Top of the Lake — that tantalizes viewers like the teasing tips of prairie grass. The hard-driving rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) sits at the head of a long table, surrounded by his fellow cowboys, in the quaint surroundings of a rooming house run by Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst). His clean-shaven, quiet brother and business partner, George (Jesse Plemons), looks on in dismay as Phil chides a sensitive waiter, Rose’s son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), for the hand-crafted paper flowers he made as table settings.
Adapted by Campion from Thomas Savage’s novel of the same name, The Power of the Dog takes place in 1925 Montana. On its face, the haunting Western concerns Phil and George, radically disparate brothers living on a ranch that aesthetically feels indebted to Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, and the ways Rose comes between them. But the deliberately paced film aims beyond its familiar setup to reach a far more affecting, complex destination. It’s an immense portrait of psychological torture and toxic masculinity, nestled on an imposing mountain landscape that entraps its characters.
The Power of the Dog is an eerie film. Cinematographer Ari Wegner (Lady Macbeth, Zola) relies on long lenses to capture the rolling hills in as much detail as the foregrounded characters for awe-inspiring, philosophical compositions. And Jonny Greenwood’s enrapturing score is downright sinister. The events take place in an isolated portion of Montana, where the West is still a robust mythology. Cars are widespread in the cities, but not here. Judges and lawmen are never seen. All that counts out here are the long hours men work, the homosocial bonds they share, and what they can teach each other about life, women, and cattle.
Phil and George’s relationship once thrived on those topics, especially when their good buddy Bronco Henry was alive. Phil has all but deified the man, and frequently takes time to praise him, even 20 years after his death. But even though Phil and George still share their childhood bedroom, they’re drifting apart. George gravitates toward Rose, another vulnerable outcast soul. In one touching scene, to quiet a group of rollicking drunken townspeople, he becomes a waiter for Rose, knowing that as the richest man in town, his very presence will cease their disruption. It’s one of the many ways The Power of the Dog is mindful of power dynamics.
Plemons and Dunst are a real-life couple, and their inherent sensitivity toward each other buoys a quick coupling that often strikes the sweetest notes. Their complementary acting styles are also helpful. Both offer subtle turns, with Dunst as a woman afflicted by the crippling anxiety of moving up to another social class and feeling like she isn’t enough, and Plemons as the lonely, tactful rancher who isn’t wholly at home with his overbearing brother. After a piano recital goes wrong when George pushes Rose to perform for Montana’s governor, it’d be easy to say that both characters fall by the narrative wayside in lieu of Phil. But Campion somehow keeps their presence relevant even when they aren’t on screen.
Cumberbatch has the best performance of his career playing Phil, and they’re boots only he could wear. Phil is college-educated, capable of referencing the myth of Romulus and Remus, yet finds great comfort being among salt-of-the-earth men on a rough-and-tumble ranch. Between Cumberbatch’s angular physique and his intellectual star persona, he brings together two seemingly disparate conceptions of an early-20th-century man. This rare combo allows him to inflict an intellectual meanness on Rose. One scene, for instance, sees him preying on Rose’s self-conscious piano playing by showing off his virtuoso banjo skills. His auditory calling card, a creepily whistled tune, is heard whenever he wants to let Rose know she’s being watched. He creates a toxic environment for her, with unsettling results.
Phil displays a different kind of nastiness toward Rose’s son Peter. It’s a physical meanness, meant to intimidate a boy he thinks of as a dandy. Peter is the tall needle that does stick out from the hay: He wears white sneakers, a white shirt, black slacks, and a cowboy hat that’s altogether too big for him. He’s studying to be a doctor, and can be unconsciously frightening to servants like Lola (Thomasin McKenzie), especially when he’s caught dissecting a rabbit.
Peter and Phil’s relationship is complicated, but clearly adversarial. Peter despises Phil for the way he treats Rose. He wants to protect her, but doesn’t have the tools to do so. In their unsteady relationship, The Power of the Dog teeters: Will it remain a film concerned with a woman who divides two brothers, or become something else? Instead of either of these things, it takes on an unexpected tenor that’s still unrelenting. A surreal lacre forms over this dusty landscape as Peter and Phil appear to form a closer bond, and the wellspring of emotions located beneath their ground becomes more complex, even mystical.
No seismic events occur in The Power of the Dog. There are no gun fights or cattle stampedes. Its meditative quality makes its abrupt ending feel even more sudden. But this is one of those movies that invites rewatches, and Campion is one of those directors who rewards careful subsequent viewing. On a second watch, the connective tissues surrounding the narrative’s tendons don’t just become apparent, they gain a muscular meaning, a robustness that makes the film’s one major reveal even more enlivening. The Power of the Dog doesn’t just mark Campion’s return — it’s the best movie of 2021 so far. This psychological Western’s themes of isolation and toxic masculinity are an ever-tightening lasso of seemingly innocuous events, and they import more horror and meaning on every closer inspection, corralling viewers under an unforgettable spell.
The Power of the Dog is now streaming on Netflix.