One of the most egregious failures in modern cinema is the utter failing of Jane Campion. Her 1993 film The Piano is widely considered one of the great landmarks of the last 30 years, her 2003 thriller In The Cut an underrated masterpiece, and her show Top of the Lake remains a cornerstone in the Golden Age of television. However, despite coming a hair shy of both Best Picture and Best Director, she was never given the opportunities her contemporaries received, for reasons that unfortunately seem abundantly clear. So it’s fantastic to know that she still remains in top form with her newest picture, The Power of the Dog, a well-acted, well-structured critique of the Western model of cinema.
Based on the 1960s novel by Thomas Savage, The Power of the Dog follows the Burbank ranch in 1920s Montana. The ranch is run by two brothers, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), a well-educated psychopath with an aggressive view of masculinity and human order, and his gentler, simpler brother George (Jesse Plemons). Phil’s rigid order of things is shaken, however, when George finds himself smitten with a young widow named Rose (Kirsten Dunst), whom he soon marries and invites to live on the ranch with her young son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a sensitive young doctor-to-be. And so begins a battle of wills as Phil sets out to destroy the intruders in every sense – a mission that will involve fury, vengeance, passion, and death.
It’s hard to describe this film in too many words, because there are so many shocking twists and turns that run the risk of being spoiled. In a lot of ways, The Power of the Dog feels like the Western Alfred Hitchcock never made. Campion has delivered a twisting, turning yarn with a rich, juicy thematic underbelly exploring the terrifying extents of toxic masculinity, and the way this rugged masculinity left without restraint can ruin the psyche. The Power of the Dog is a more honest Western, romantic without the romanticism. After all, Red River may be a glorified look at cattle drives, but it seemingly glosses over the bull castration – something Phil performs with a surprising amount of glee.
Phil is a fascinating character; a dark, complex version of the classic hero of the 40s and 50s. He possesses all the traits that would be laughing points for a heroic character, yet are here presented in a disturbing, almost lurid way. He doesn’t bathe; he detests femininity ruining a “man’s world;” and he’s such a stickler for a sense of order he insists that he and his forty-year-old brother still share their twin beds from childhood in the same room. One line in particular, the declaration (delivered with seething rage) that “I stink, and I like it,” is an all-time great Western line, so accurate to the classical era I had to Google it to make sure John Wayne never said it himself. This intense level of masculinity is put at odds with the newcomers – a woman and her effeminate son – and, in a tale as old as time, explodes in a battle of cosmically opposed forces in the whirlwind battlefield that is nature. In other words, Campion’s comfort zone.
As a master of tension between utterly human individuals, Campion’s script and direction find it in every relationship and angle: Phil’s domineering relationship with his brother, his aggressive onslaught on poor Rose, his complicated connection with Peter – a boy he loathes yet who may be the only person in the state to share his intellectual capabilities (and maybe more), and Phil’s relationship with himself. Much of the film involves trying to dissect Phil as a character, as he spends almost the entire time as a tyrannical enigma. He’s a Yale graduate, well-read, gifted at playing the banjo, and so much more.
And yet, he seems to hate all these things about himself. Something deep within him has made him loathe these qualities, choosing instead to emulate his long-dead idol, Bronco Henry. He’s a hard man, albeit more willing to use his intelligence to decimate you rather than his fists or guns; in one hauntingly brilliant scene, he uses his banjo to mock Rose as she prepares to play piano for the governor, and whistles eerie tunes at her within alleyways. He’s a John Wayne archetype presented with honesty and depth – a machismo that masks something deep below its surface.
Phil would be a complete enigma if it weren’t for Campion’s direction. Her vision is so potent, it is impossible to miss any of the subtext. Campion’s camera lingers, captures distinctively matching costumes, hones in on well-sharpened acting decisions, and beyond. Moments like beating a horse, close-ups on hands tying ropes, and more are caked in meaning and symbolism, impossible to miss. And yet, Campion’s direction extends far beyond Phil’s character. In fact, every single moment telegraphs to the audience that she knows exactly what she’s doing. She is a master of the craft, capable of executing massive moments just as easily as the quiet ones, such as a subtle, loving sequence set at Golden Hour where Rose teaches George how to dance.
Speaking of Golden Hour, that cinematography by Ari Wegner is simply sumptuous; every shot is a gorgeously framed masterpiece, and often contains multitudes in its beautiful frame. There’s a great moment where Dunst is framed alone on the opposite end of the table. It’s a little touch, fairly common in the industry. And yet, in the hands of a genius, it feels as alive as ever. Kirsty Cameron’s costume work is equally precise; each costume seems deliberately chosen to constitute differences in characterization, whether to contrast different characters or the same character at different times in their life (to say more would give away the plot).
And then there’s the sound design, the film’s secret weapon, used to capture the sounds of the prairie, the tension-building (terror…sexual…who knows) of a rope being deliberately stretched and crafted, or an echoing whistle used to mock, haunt, and hunt from afar. It doesn’t hurt that the sound design is aided by Johnny Greenwood’s score, arguably his best yet, which as the film’s order of things becomes eschewed, shifts from its joyful melodies to an off-key and unsettling version in the most ingenious of ways. It’s rare you see a film where every detail is so thoroughly thought out, and it makes Campion’s direction all the more stellar.
Amongst this cast, there are no weak links. Every actor contributes to the plot and then some, raising the bar each and every scene. At the end of the day, this is Cumberbatch’s film, and he commands it dutifully every single scene, sometimes with just the burning passion of his eyes. Cumberbatch is a towering presence, to be sure, but it’s also worth noting that his performance is also the greatest John Wayne impression you’ll ever see, capturing his vocal inflections and force-of-nature acting style. It’s easily one of Cumberbatch’s best performances to date. As Cumberbatch’s most frequent sparring partner, Dunst is also terrific. Her earnestly sweet energy from the jump is a potent contrast to Cumberbatch’s sociopathy, but it gives way to real, terrified energy as the film goes on. Her deranged moments later in the film are terrifically staged and executed.
Plemons, meanwhile, is a quiet, lovely straight man opposite Cumberbatch’s force of nature. And shocker, he has excellent chemistry with his real-life wife Dunst. As for Kodi Smit-McPhee, he is certainly doing…a lot. I like most of his work – emotionally, it’s a very subtle, guarded performance. But you can also feel him acting in a way his costars aren’t. In each scene, you can see him thinking about and making deliberate choices as opposed to the body-and-soul commitment of his costars. Although to be fair, their characters are mostly interior, and require that level of nuance. McPhee’s role requires a noticeable lisp and faint walk, which necessitates a lot of thinking to pull off. Oh, and amongst the smaller roles, I want to praise Frances Conroy as Phil and George’s mother, who commands each scene she’s in, and Thomasin McKenzie, whose role amounts to a cameo, and yet she already demonstrates a knack for making small roles big.
The Power of the Dog is a masterful demonstration of the art of filmmaking. It is a character study on a grandiose scale, a look at generational and institutional failings through a simple, well-told story of pure emotion. While I’m not sure it’s as emotional and accessible as The Piano was all those years ago, it is hard to hold that against it. The Power of the Dog is a demonstration of great acting, great writing, and great direction, from the top down; a mastery of the craft that cannot and should not be missed. And like fine cheese, fine wine, and a great film, it should continue to age and grow on repeat viewings.
The Power of the Dog will play in theaters starting tomorrow, November 25th. It will begin streaming on Netflix December 1st