A successful American western may need horses and a picturesque landscape and an epic conflict of man versus nature, but more than anything else, it has become inextricably linked to an almost oppressive sense of masculinity. The Power of the Dog, the latest film from New Zealand auteur Jane Campion, is an exploration of the lonely business of being a man. It’s a slow burn of a psychological thriller that is at first content to luxuriate in the quiet agonies of its characters but eventually ratchets up the tension until it reaches a fever pitch and is unable to be contained. With a compelling narrative that sees actors like Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Kodi Smit-McPhee firing on all cylinders, The Power of the Dog is one of the most tantalizingly rich films of the year.
Rose (Kirsten Dunst) is a single mother who runs an inn in 1925 Montana with her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), an effete teenager with an affinity for making lovely paper flowers and aspirations of becoming a doctor. She’s lonely, and their life has often been difficult since the death by suicide of her late husband, so when the shy, amiable George (Jess Plemons) takes a shine to her, it’s an easy decision for her to return his affections. They marry, and Rose and Peter move into his large ranch house, presumably a happy new family.
There’s just one problem: George has a brother, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is both threatened by their arrival and determined to make their lives at the ranch as uneasy as possible. Cumberbatch plays Phil with a quiet menace, and it’s his most dynamic role in ages. He’s a cruel, misogynistic bully who delights in playing with Rose as a cat plays with a mouse. But if there’s an emptiness to him, it’s because he has had to stifle everything inside himself that isn’t pure John Wayne, that doesn’t live up to the standards that society, especially in the old west, has dictated. We see flashes of another Phil: the clever musician who can pick up a tune after hearing it just once or twice; the eager student who not only went to university back east but excelled; a loyal, affectionate friend and lover, lighting and sharing a cigarette as though it were a kiss. These qualities have long since been buried, though. He pushes them down deep, covering them in a thick layer of sweat and filth.
It would be easy for a film like this to entirely revolve around Phil, but the strength of the cast is such that they never fade into the background. Jesse Plemons is a perfect counterpart to Cumberbatch: a quiet and empathetic peacemaker who is always desperately in search of a way to convince people to get along. We feel Rose’s quiet humiliations and descent into alcoholism keenly, as well as her deep-seated fear of the unpredictable and dangerous Phil. The young Peter is sensitive, but he’s also inscrutable, with cold eyes that you can never quite figure out. Protective of his mother but inexplicably fascinated by Phil, his character is perpetually uncertain of his place on the ranch. (Phil doesn’t help matters, either: he is strangely antagonistic towards his new nephew, regarding him with distaste possibly because he reminds of the qualities he finds most repugnant in himself.)
The performances are all beyond reproach, as is only fitting for a Jane Campion film — she always seems to have a knack for getting the most out of her actors and helping them connect with material in a way that few other directors are capable of. But that’s far from her only accomplishment with The Power of the Dog. She assembles a remarkable team of artists that make the film one of the most creatively ambitious of the year. Ari Wegner’s cinematography is visually arresting, taking the old West’s well-known vistas and filling them with loneliness and secrets. Jonny Greenwood’s score, too, is a play on the familiar, blending a traditional folk sound with an arrangement that is rich and sophisticated: simple but containing hidden depths.
Campion fans have waited quite some time for her return to the big screen: Their faith was not misplaced. With The Power of the Dog, she creates one of her most moving, emotionally complex films, one that captures the eye, the heart, and the mind, leaving the viewer breathless.