Jane Campion hasn’t released a film in 12 years. The director's fans have been waiting and Power of the Dog doesn’t disappoint. Set in the American west in 1929, the film seems like a Western but might more accurately be described as a vivid exploration of power and masculinity.
Campion, who also wrote the screenplay, bases her movie on a 1967 novel by the late Thomas Savage. Savage's set-up is classical, nearly Biblical.
Two brothers (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons) operate a thriving ranch. The brothers couldn’t be less alike. Cumberbatch’s Phil is a macho cowboy who was schooled in the ways of the West by his idol — the late Bronco Henry.
Never seen in the film, Bronco’s spirit continues to be felt. Think of the myth around Bronco as Phil’s religion. Bronco saw things that other people didn’t, Phil tells us.
A man of the earth, Phil rides, ropes, castrates bulls, and runs the ranch. He’s less a character than a force. He's also intelligent, talented homophobic, and ... well ... you can guess the rest.
Plemons’s George is another kind of man. He’s cultured (to a point) and kind and you don’t have to know much to draw archetypical comparisons between the brothers.
Jonny Greenwood’s score enhances tension and adds an unsettling aura to the film, helping us understand that Campion has no interest in bowing to the demands of a well-weathered genre.
At the same time, Campion and cinematographer Ari Wegner evoke images reminiscent of John Ford. Like the West of 1929, the movie's open landscapes brim with possibility. (The story is set in Montana but Campion shot the film in New Zealand.)
The situation at the ranch takes a major turn when George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widow who runs a cafe where the ranch hands gather for a celebratory chicken dinner after a cattle drive. As the cowboys eat, Phil taunts Rose's son Peter (Kodi Smith-McPhee), a teenager who works in the cafe as a waiter and who makes paper flowers.
We expect that Rose’s arrival on the ranch and the later arrival of Peter won't sit well with Phil, who makes no attempt to conceal his antagonism, hostility based on what he seems to view as the superiority of his self-sufficiency.
Phil never misses an opportunity to display his contempt for Rose. He plays banjo and easily finishes a tune that Rose struggles to master on the grand piano George buys for her. George probably overestimates Rose’s gifts, perhaps because he’s relieved to break through the isolation in which he felt imprisoned.
Smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, stomping across wooden floors, and refusing to bathe, Phil serves as a scalding, intensified emblem of what underlies the facade of the cowboy icon. He’s all gristle.
Gradually, the film abandons Plemons' character to focus on Phil and Peter, a medical student Phil regards as effeminate and weak and who may represent the feminine side of the forces that Campion brings into collision.
Studious and determined, Peter may not be all that he seems. He has no trouble dissecting the rabbits that he catches. He's not afraid of blood.
Oddly, Phil begins to take to the young man, trying to school him in the ways of the ranch while Rose buckles under the pressure of a struggle she can’t win. She starts to drink.
At one point, the governor (Keith Carradine) arrives for dinner, an awkward affair which Phil refuses to attend. He won’t bathe for company, declaring that he likes to stink.
Cumberbatch’s performance towers over the rest of the cast, which is more or less what the story demands.
But Campion (The Piano, The Portrait of a Lady and more) isn’t out to lionize a ranch-bred homophobe. The story’s ominous simmer eventually reveals the acid that bubbles beneath its surface.
Power of the Dog has plenty to say about manhood but it’s not an example of politically correct "wokeness." It is, above all, a Campion movie -- strange, engulfing, and defiant of the many tropes that defined the Hollywood Western, as well as a substantial portion of American cultural mythology.
If it's a Western at all, Power of the Dog is one that springs from primal urges that lurk and threaten. It's a film that insists on being felt as much as contemplated. And feel it, we do.