Please note: This article includes spoilers for Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. If you have not yet seen the film, proceed with caution.
In these waning days of the awards season, it’s a good time to take one more look at a film that truly was one of the best of 2021: Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. To reflect on the elements that make it such a special and important addition to Academy history, regardless of outcomes. Because whether it wins twelve awards or zero, this is a film that will live on, a master work of craft and performance.
In an early scene, Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons — brothers Phil and George, respectively — sit at the table for one of their signature shorthand conversations. George tells his brother he’s just married a woman from town, Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and that she’ll be moving to their ranch. The look that crosses Phil’s face isn’t anger or annoyance. It isn’t betrayal or fear either. It is a look of profound sadness. And it is one he will bear again at the end of the film when, knowing he is about to die, Phil realizes exactly what happened to him.
From the opening moments, Jonny Greenwood’s bewitching score instantly transports us to a cattle ranch in 1925 Montana. Ari Wegner’s camera captures the beauty and the harshness of the landscape, and the dusty, difficult work at hand. And we meet brothers Phil and George, one imposing and the other docile. They speak but neither says any of the things that are really on their minds. From the claustrophobic interiors of the large but dark and oppressive ranch house, to the wide open spaces of Big Sky country, Peter Sciberras deftly cuts in and out of chatter and labor with the precision of a master surgeon. And all of it is tied together by Jane Campion, a director who brings so many elements together like a well-crafted mystery, hiding clues in plain sight, long before we ever know to look for them.
There are lots of pretty, well-made movies. Good writing. Heart-wrenching performances. We see them often enough that phrases like “the best film of the year” and “masterpiece” start to lose their meaning. There are a number of great films this year. What is it about The Power of the Dog specifically that makes it so special? Why is this film set in 1925 Montana so vital and relevant in 2021?
At its core, this is a film about a man so destroyed by his own self-loathing and repression that he is toxic and abusive to the people closest to him. It is about soul-crushing loneliness and its many different forms and coping methods. And it is a mirror for us to look into and examine our own dualities, asking us to think about the versions of ourselves we share with the world and the versions we keep hidden away.
And there are many dualities at play. One of the first we see is the Burbank house. A large, imposing structure whose eastern design is at odds with the rugged western terrain. The house brims with signs of intellectual light. Beautifully appointed shelves full of oft-read books. A chess set always in the middle of a game in progress. A grand staircase and large, expensive furniture, wide windows, and a giant kitchen. But heavy draperies block out the light, and the house, while full of space and brilliance, bathes itself in darkness.
Phil and George, though grown men and masters of the house, still share a bedroom when we first meet them. Narrow, side-by-side beds in one room, even though they have plenty of other options. It’s an odd choice that is even more odd when we consider just how different they are, and how clearly they want different things in life. It isn’t until George gets married that he moves with his new bride to another space. Doing so furthers the divide between Phil and George as Phil’s unspoken feud with Rose deepens.
George and Rose’s marriage is maybe not the final straw in the growing division between the brothers, but it exacerbates a problem that has been gestating, presumably, for years. George isn’t content to be a cattle rancher. He has bigger ambitions, which we can see in the way he wears suits, even while riding a horse, and from the fact that he owns one of the few cars in the area. And soon after their hasty wedding, George tells Rose how glad he is to be married to her because he doesn’t want to be alone anymore.
But where he sees this as a happy union and a step on the road to greater opportunities, he spends more and more time away from home, thereby leaving his new bride alone. He can’t recognize what his choices have done to Rose because, as much as he longs for love and connection, he feels satisfied once his needs are met.
And then there is Phil himself, a Yale graduate who eschewed academia for life on the prairie. He struts around in his chaps, chest expanded, taking up as much space as he can. He refuses to bathe on a regular schedule or in an actual bathtub, and castrates bulls with his bare hands. Phil plays the part of a hyper-masculine cowboy, doing everything he can to channel his long-departed friend, mentor Bronco Henry.
As much as he loudly asserts his rugged individualism and projects an air of untouchable confidence, it is all an act. Phil spends so much time acting like he is totally and completely free to be himself while forced, due to societal convention, to hide the fact that he is a gay man in a time and a place where that is just not acceptable. He has to be content to speak of Bronco Henry as an old friend and not who he really was, Phil’s first love. And because he has to hide this, he also has to hide the fact that he is deeply, terribly, achingly lonely. To cover all of that, he lashes out like any bully does, harshly and bitterly going after anyone he identifies as weak.
In this case, it’s both Rose and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Interestingly, Peter turns out to be the most straightforward of our four characters. He doesn’t hide himself. Though he is teased and mocked and called a number of homophobic slurs, the question of his sexuality is left ambiguous not because it doesn’t matter but because Peter himself has probably never given it much thought.
Instead, the boy on the cusp of manhood is consistently underestimated and misunderstood. No one — even or especially — his mother knows what he is really capable of. And though Peter does become a murderer by film’s end, he has a pretty straightforward view of the world. He takes upon himself the responsibility for his mother’s happiness. Phil is the barrier to her happiness. It isn’t that Peter is particularly a dangerous person. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. He just wants to protect his mother. So when he stumbles upon Phil’s secret, he knows what to do. Like a rabbit he ensnares to dissect and study, Peter sets a trap, not using Phil’s sexuality against him, but that aching, deep, desperate loneliness.
When Phil, on the verge of death, realizes what is about to happen to him, he isn’t angry. He is heartbroken.
And because of the spellbinding performances from all four or these key players (and all Oscar nominated), and because of Campion’s careful direction, we feel many things at once. Sadness that Phil’s life was wasted. Anger that he never faced a real reckoning for his actions. Relief that Rose can finally have some peace, and that George can go on, guilt-free, and build the life he longs for. With Peter, it isn’t a triumphant moment, really. There is some satisfaction in it, but mostly it’s a sense of simply getting back to work.
The Power of the Dog isn’t a happy film. It doesn’t necessarily leave us feeling uplifted or encouraged, but it is a powerful examination of the range of human emotions we don’t often identify as emotions. Anger. Bitterness. Discomfort and alienation. Desperation. There are a lot of great films. But there are few that are so profoundly well crafted on every level that they deserve to be called perfect. The Power of the Dog is cinematic perfection.