Beautifully complex and contemplative, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog presents the ultimate in slow-burn narrative storytelling. Led by incredible performances from Benedict Cumberbatch and Kodi Smit-McPhee, Campion takes a tale of what it means to be “a man” and delivers one of the best films of the year.
Cumberbatch stars as Phil Burbank, a wealthy and dedicated rancher alongside his brother George (Jesse Plemons) in 1925 Montana. During a cattle drive, George meets widow Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) and quickly falls in love. After quickly being married, the brothers also meet Rose’s quiet, effeminate son Peter (Smit-McPhee).
Rose and Peter immediately run afoul of Phil, who believes them to be taking advantage of George. Phil begins to psychologically manipulate Rose to drive her away. Peter seems destined for the same until Peter and Phil begin to grow closer out on the ranch.
Campion parses out all the necessary information patiently and perfectly. While everything seems straightforward to begin, slowly and surely, the plot comes together to coalesce into a masterful story at the film’s conclusion. No piece of information is wasted and nothing is superfluous. Every detail matters and every character beat will be paid off down the road.
Thematically, Phil can’t escape the meaning of what it is to be a man. He looks at George as a man who doesn’t respect what he has been taught and is weaker for it. He looks at Peter and sees someone who doesn’t grasp the importance of the ideals Phil holds so dear. Phil speaks of his mentor Bronco Henry with cult-like devotion. Phil decided Bronco Henry was the ideal of what a man is supposed to be and any deviation from that philosophy is viewed as treason.
Comfort and routine are equally as important to Phil. For the longest time, Phil had his rituals and his work, and the success of those rituals and work had paid off. As soon as George meets Rose and deviates from his routine, he lashes out. Despite being good at what he does professionally, he is either unable or unwilling to adapt to any sort of change. The only way he knows how to deal with change is to lash out at it and attempt to return the status quo.
Visually, the film is stunning. The narrative is constantly shifting from bright sunlight to underlit barns, from shaded ponds to gaslit dining halls. At no point is the visual language anything other than crystal clear. In addition to the sweeping mountains and cavernous ranch rooms, Johnny Greenwood’s score adds to the western mood while lending a hint of terror to the proceedings.
The film is anchored by two masterful performances. On paper, Cumberbatch is miscast as the hyper-masculine picture of gruff authority. But, that’s the point. Phil’s characterization is based on self-fear and self-hatred. He can never stop being anything other than the facade he has put on or it will expose his own faults; which is not something he is willing to come to terms with. His masculine posturing is not for himself, but for everyone else to see him as the ideal he has put himself up to be. Phil is never truly redeemed and Cumberbatch leans into the idea he could be without fully committing to it.
Equally up to the task is Smit-McPhee. His character seems aimless at first, but his scarecrow frame and huge facial features present as much of a facade as Phil does. Smit-McPhee never speaks with volume, but he never whispers or shouts. He is in complete control of who he is and what he is aiming to do, without anyone – including the audience – having the true intentions understood until the film’s conclusion.
Plemmons isn’t given much to do other than be a punching bag for Phil or a steady shoulder for Rose. That being said, the role of a stoic diplomat of a rancher seems like a role Plemmons was born to play. Meanwhile, Dunst has the toughest of roles with much of her acting occurring silently. Her pain is evident as soon as Phil begins his torments, but she never expresses herself. She knows her place and she copes with her torture the only way she knows how – with small, barely noticed rebellions.
Campion has spent the better part of 30 years being picky with her projects. With The Power of the Dog, her choice in adaptation has paid off with my favorite film of the year. A masterful set of performances with the absolute top craftspeople. Campion has already proven her status as an auteur, and this film just reinforces her status even further.