“This is Phil. You’ll meet Benedict later.” That’s the way that Jane Campion, writer and director of “The Power of the Dog,” purportedly introduced the star of her movie to the rest of the cast and crew. Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays sadistic Montana rancher Phil Burbank, apparently remained in character for the entire shoot, and the man seen on screen, whose mean streak includes belittling a teenage boy and tormenting his brother’s wife with his whistling, barely resembles the affable guy present in interviews and at events.
But there’s an insecurity perpetually bubbling beneath the surface of the machismo front that Phil exerts, and it quickly becomes apparent that that’s all it is: a front to hide his own fears and desires behind. “The Power of the Dog,” which is based on the novel by Thomas Savage, is set in 1925. Phil and his brother George (Jesse Plemons) are wealthy ranch owners, but they take an active role in the business, and it’s while stopping at an inn during a cattle drive with the other ranch hands that George meets and becomes smitten with Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widow with a teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). George soon marries Rose, who moves to the ranch and uses the Burbank money to send Peter to medical school.
Campion’s film builds slowly, punctuated by Jonny Greenwood’s increasingly unnerving score and by the imposing mountains that surround the characters, seemingly closing in on them (New Zealand’s stunning landscapes served as a stand-in for Montana, and cinematographer Ari Wegner gorgeously conveys both nature’s majesty outdoors and the suffocating interiors of the home that rests adjacent to them). But while many of the film’s meanings and character motivations are subtle, they are made abundantly clear. Campion affirms that she is a master of her craft through her very intentional assemblage of shots that speak louder than words ever could, particularly when it comes to the film’s queer undertones and the object of Phil’s secret desires. Throughout the movie, Phil reminisces about Bronco Henry, his mentor and supposedly a prime specimen of the hyper-masculine western hero. His voice takes on a slight wistful tone when he speaks of him. He keeps Bronco’s saddle, accompanied by a commemorative plague, in a prime spot in the stables. And later in the film, during a moment of solitude, he lays down in the grass and withdraws a cloth embroidered with the initials “BH,” and with the delicacy of a dance, brushes the cloth over his face and body.
When we first meet Peter, meanwhile, he is carefully assembling flowers made from paper, which Rose gathers and uses as centerpieces in the inn’s restaurant. When Phil first sees the seemingly effeminate young man waiting tables, he uses his delicate creations as a way to demean him. And yet, in what may be the film’s most stunning shot, when Phil picks up one of the flowers, he inserts his finger inside it to gently touch the paper stamen—the male reproductive part of the flower. Phil becomes increasingly aggressive toward Peter and also Rose after George marries her; his micro-aggressions, such as whistling the tune that Rose, once a piano player for silent films, now struggles to play, drive her to drink, and drive Peter’s resentment. The contrast between Phil and Peter becomes more complex and intriguing as the film progresses, and it becomes more obvious that neither are what they appear. Peter is tall, lanky, awkward on a horse, quiet, and bookish. But he’s also cold and calculating, as we see when he traps animals, only to carefully dissect them as part of his studies. Smit-McPhee’s performance, and the turn his character takes in the film’s final act, brilliantly matches the slow burn of the story beat for beat (I’ve seen quite a few people find the ending of this film surprising; I think Campion and Smit-McPhee planted just the right amount of clues along the way). While Peter is a man of science, one of the film’s most intriguing little reveals comes out at a dinner party, when a guest mentions how Phil studied English at Yale, a fact that feels at odds with the gruff ranch hand we’ve seen up to that point, and that is another instance of Campion’s rich world-building and character development.
Dunst is also incredible, her features revealing how worn down she is by life and by the men who try to dominate her. At the start of the film, she is brought to tears by Phil’s cruelty toward her son, and later by Phil’s cruelty toward her. And while George appears to be truly affectionate toward her, there is some question as to his intentions too. When he first brings Rose home, he tells her how happy he is not to be lonely anymore; it’s sweet, but could also be interpreted as somewhat self-centered, placing his feelings above her own. This becomes more obvious when George purchases a grand piano for Rose to play, gently coercing her into performing for the mayor and his wife at a dinner party even when it’s clear that she isn’t comfortable with it. Maybe George really loves her, and maybe she’s just something for him to show off. Rose’s descent into alcoholism would be a disappointing direction for her character if it wasn’t for one scene toward the end of the film that allows her to take back some agency by exerting control over Phil in the household that now also partly belongs to her. Plemons is a great contrast to Cumberbatch, whose Phil is often dirty and even slovenly in appearance, refusing to wash up for dinner. George is always well-dressed and genteel, and seems concerned about appearances. It’s safe to assume that their well-appointed home is his doing, not Phil’s.
It’s Cumberbatch’s performance, however, that is the centerpiece of “The Power of the Dog,” and in a career bursting with acclaimed roles in film, TV, and on the stage, it may be his best. The tall, thin, English actor doesn’t seem like the type to play a boastful ranch hand who can castrate a cow with his bare hands without a thought, but that’s a big reason why his casting works so well (he also legitimately pulls off an American accent for the first time). Phil is a man who aspires to embody the masculine traits that traditionally accompany his job and lifestyle, but that isn’t who he really is. Cumberbatch acts well with the other players—we especially see in his face how tormenting others satisfies him, makes him feel like a bigger man—but it’s in his moments of solitude, and later, in the close scenes he shares with Peter, where he is able to best convey Phil’s frustrated longing.
Campion fills her film with traditional western movie imagery, from the sweeping landscapes, simultaneously rugged and graceful, galloping horses, fields of cattle, and men who model themselves in the typical cowboy fashion. But she uses a medium that is notorious for celebrating the white masculine ideal to break it down and explore the intersection of fear and desire, as she has in some of her previous films such as “The Piano” and “In the Cut.” But “The Power of the Dog” also called to mind for me another movie, “The Beguiled” (both Don Siegel’s 1971 film and Sofia Coppola’s 2017 remake), initially because of a literal plot point, but later for similar themes they both explore. “The Beguiled” looks at what happens when a man enters a remote schoolhouse inhabited solely by women, who are driven first by lust, and later by revenge, as they scheme to rid themselves of their masculine invader, the object of their desire. “The Beguiled” leans more toward Southern Gothic than western in its setting, but it’s interesting to think about the two films together. In “The Power of the Dog,” Rose and Peter are the invaders upon Phil’s life. Rather than taking the shape of an actual man, as the Clint Eastwood and Colin Farrell characters do in “The Beguiled,” Rose and Peter are symbols of an ideal that Phil is trying so hard to embody, from Rose and George’s heterosexual union to Peter’s feminist qualities that fill Phil with both fear of what he is and desire to submit to his urges. Conversely, Phil’s choice to fight his feelings by fighting them prompts Rose and Peter to, like the women in “The Beguiled,” start to push back against this pillar of faux masculinity standing between them and a peaceful, happy life. Maybe there’s something to all that, and maybe I’m just spit-balling in my enthusiasm. Either way, with “The Power of the Dog,” Campion and her cast and crew have woven a rich story that’s one of the best films of the year. It’s been 12 years since the last feature film Campion directed, the 2009 period romance “Bright Star,” but if “The Power of the Dog” is any evidence, her attention to her craft has only strengthened over time.
“The Power of the Dog” is now playing in theaters and streaming on Netflix. Runtime: 126 minutes. Rated R.