The Power of the Dog (streaming on Netflix) is a quiet, angry, western drama, bubbling over with inner rage and emotional violence. Like a lot of westerns, it is about the end of something. In this case, it is not the end of the old west (which had already happened at this point) or the end of the cowboy way of life (the men here seem perfectly fine with being ranchers). It is the far more personal end of a relationship via the beginning of a new one that sets this story in motion.
Set in 1925 Montana, it is the story of two brothers. George is kind, civilized, a businessman. Phil is mean, controlling, forever unwashed. When George becomes smitten with a widow, Phil, feeling like he is being replaced in his brother’s life, turns his cruelty on his new sister-in-law, Rose, and her son, Peter.
The first thing that struck me about The Power of the Dog was the cinematography by Ari Wegner. Set mostly on a ranch in Montana (though it was filmed in New Zealand), it is full of beautiful shots of the vast, barren, countryside all around them. For Phil, this represents freedom; he is undoubtedly more comfortable there then in polite society. For Rose it is foreboding, alien, representative of a man who was casually cruel when they met and is now doing it intentionally. Peter feels curiosity toward this place, while for George it almost seems like something out of a past life. He definitely does not carry the nostalgia Phil clings to. None of this information is stated in dialogue. It is all seen in close-ups of the actors’ faces and longshots of the hills surrounding the landscape.
The Power of the Dog (based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage) was written/directed by Jane Campion (it is her first movie in 12 years). She has made a story about envy, jealousy, masculinity and repressed homosexuality that never outright addresses any of those things. It can’t because the characters wouldn’t know how. Phil shows his anger at his brother through talk of the good old days and targeted humiliations of Rose and Peter. George is unable to even voice his feelings toward his brother, responding to Phil’s emotional brutality by looking at the floor and waiting for him to stop. Rose deals with her situation by turning to the bottle. Peter is the only one who pushes through it, with a seriousness that Phil is disarmed by.
This is a western without guns or brawls or threats. Campion is patient, building very unnerving tension using facial expressions and a haunting score by Jonny Greenwood. It is clear things are going to turn out badly for these people, but there are no big confrontations or sudden moments of revelation. The audience can sense it just by the way they look at each other. Seeing Phil attempt to exert his control over the others is like watching a horror movie where all of the wounds are internal.
As good as the overall production is, the acting is its equal. Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent as Phil. Wielding his resentment like a whip, this is the most vicious character he has played. Phil has been damaged by life, and is overwhelmed by what he sees as his brother pulling away from him. Still, Cumberbatch never plays him as though we should feel sympathy for him. Phil is a monster.
Jesse Plemons, as George, certainly cares for his brother and Rose, yet it is easier for him to turn a blind eye to what is happening between them, rather than do anything about it. It is a more understated performance, but a good one.
Kirsten Dunst has the most emotionally taxing role as Rose. Her arc shows what the harshness of this place can do, even to a strong person. The most complex performance is by Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter. At first, he seems withdrawn, intimidated by Phil and the other cowboys. Then, something changes; he begins to assert himself. Has Phil’s bullying changed him? Or is Peter in complete control of his own decisions? The answer is what drives the final act.
The Power of the Dog isn’t an easy watch. However, it is a fascinating one. Jane Campion won the Silver Lion (Best Director Award) at this year’s Venice International Film Festival. I expect to hear her name a lot more in the coming months, along with that of Benedict Cumberbatch. It is a confident, compelling production and a very different kind of western.
4¼ out of 5
Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank
Kirsten Dunst as Rose Gordon
Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter Gordon
Jesse Plemons as George Burbank
Written and Directed by Jane Campion