The American western is no stranger to cruel men who wield their masculinity to maintain their position. Positioned as heroic embodiments of the demands of the time rather than men capable of (and often willing to enact) intense spiritual violence, the ranchers and cowboys of the genre have been exalted as pure representations of manhood. With lush iconography and archetypal characterizations at its core, the western allowed us, even invited us, to overlook the truth of our violent past and the brutality expected of legacies of men. Such is the setting for The Power of the Dog, Jane Campion’s momentous return to the cinema that aims to upbend those conventions and does so with the swiftness of a hot blade. The film is not really a western, but interested in the genre all the same—both in the masculine ideals it upholds and their reflections in American culture.
Westerns have seen many men like the film’s central demon in chaps, Phil Burbank. A brusque and domineering creature brought to grimy life by Benedict Cumberbatch, Phil runs the most successful ranch in Montana, inherited from his parents and shared with his more business-minded brother George (Jesse Plemons). The two are opposites in more than physicality and demeanor, but also their approach to others and maintaining the ranch’s stature. Where Phil drives with unfeeling isolation, the kindhearted George looks to foster their business dealings within their town and outward. Phil has feeling of ownership of George, or at least the closed family unit of the life they share together. Cumberbatch in turn gazes outward like a predator seeking new torment, while Plemons movingly can’t seem to hold another’s eye, as if it must break his tender heart.
In town, a widow Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) runs a small-time restaurant for rowdy guests, including Phil at his rudest. Rose’s vulnerable position meets the kind eye of George, leading to a hesitant but sudden romance between the wounded two. Their marriage sends Phil into plotting meanness against Rose, who he views as a gold digger before he even considers her quivering, anxious frame. The summer brings the arrival of Rose’s gentle son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a reedy younger reflection of Phil in possibly more ways than just their lanky stature. The film provides the four with mostly equal footing, using its balanced perspectives to weave a complex tale where the thrill lies in who thinks they have control, who loses it, and who secretly has it.
The subtextual battle of brains that follows is rendered with sensual specificity by the genius Campion, as in complete control of the proceedings and our sensory experience as ever before. The film is imbued with acrid, horny textures that reveal the truths at the core of the narrative with more subtle force than simple words could. Her construction is a flirtation into a bear trap of surprises, a film at once alluring and exacting in how it enraptures us in the cruel context of the Burbanks’ world. No one else could make this film as she makes it, with her mind as much on yesteryear as today, as much on the spirit as the body.
At the heart of the film is a reckoning for the kind of man who exerts their power over others for the sole sake of maintaining their position. The legacy of this is shown in Phil’s obsession with the legend of his trainer Bronco Henry, an almost deified figure for the film’s monstrous main character. He wants to be the man who taught him manhood, threatened by those who don’t align to achieving that pure male perfection. Cumberbatch avoids cliche to the point that you forget what they might be, bringing life to a Phil who is by turns petulant like a child stamping his feet, spiteful as a snake, and always ready to pounce.
Though George and Peter’s respective differentness and duality draw out fascinating notes in Plemons and Smit-McPhee’s performances, Cumberbatch’s towering performance has its match in the frazzled, dismantled one from Dunst. Among her best performances, Dunst’s Rose is a woman driven to darkness in the kind of isolation Phil has thrived in. The actress captures the unique tragedy of several of her circumstances (her grief, the fear brought on by Phil, her inability to connect with other women) in one anxious whole that allows us to understand Rose most of the film’s characters—which proves crucial to the emotional catharsis of the film’s final acts.
With a serpentine score from Jonny Greenwood (again delivering some career-best work after this fall’s Spencer), The Power of the Dog is ripe to be plucked for meaning and recontextualization. To experience it is to be placed in the hands of a master storyteller, one who knows how to build a story patiently to its climax as well as she knows how to enmesh us in her characters’ psychosis. The Power of the Dog is a staggering piece of cinema that we will be unpacking for years to come, another of Campion’s masterstrokes that get at the sensual, psychological root of human power dynamics.