Jane Campion’s ‘The Power of the Dog’ Goes for the Jugular With Quiet Intensity

Sometimes intense feelings can seem more violent when they are kept at bay, as if waiting to explode. Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” builds its characters within the confines of a grand Western, and lets their true selves boil and fester. Expressing the hidden is an extremely difficult trick to pull off dramatically because movies are by nature a visual art form. We want to see everything. Campion refuses to simply lay it all out. The result is a haunted, alluring drama that combines wide vistas with our most intricate gestures. Hostility, desire, envy, are all evoked, but in the way we felt awkward around someone and only later realized why. Campion’s elegant style is still present, but with introspection so deep viewers will feel compelled to do repeat viewings to grasp its layers.

The setting is 1925 Montana, where two brothers, the Burbanks, run the land and business they have inherited. As with many siblings, life has shaped them into completely different men. George (Jesse Plemons) is “soft” and low-tempered, while Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is said to be brilliant, versed in classical history, but is ferocious, ultra-masculine and basks in ranch life. He wears sweat and dirt with pride. Fate brings them to the local Red Mill restaurant where George takes a liking to Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), a widow Phil likes to verbally bully, as well as her frail-looking but intelligent son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). To Phil’s stunned annoyance, George decides to marry Rose, who soon moves into their house with Peter. It’s a rather stale arrangement, with George mostly out and about running the business. Phil begins to make the atmosphere unbearable with his combination of micro and upfront aggressions. Yet with Peter the wild man begins to build a different kind of connection, one that reveals a side of himself which bitterness and anger have kept tied down.

“The Power of the Dog” marks a change in tone for Campion, whose brilliant body of work has featured fierce emotions that rarely stay subtle. Consider her masterpieces, like “The Piano” and “Bright Star,” about men and women defying convention and expressing lust and love with abandon, whether they be mute brides or Romantic poets. Her underrated 2003 erotic thriller, “In the Cut,” irritated misogynist sensibilities by turning the tables and allowing female characters to be as sexually bold and daring as typical male personas. With “The Power of the Dog” Campion takes a biographical novel by Thomas Savage and conjures a Western about repression. The cinematography by Ari Wegner is in the tradition in classic Westerns with an emphasis on rich, wide shots of vast plains and mountains where the clouds cast shadows. Interiors are captured in warm yet drained colors that suggest we’ve entered another era. Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood’s score is atmospheric and kinetic, similar to his work for Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood.” These aesthetic touches are counter to the controlled, tense performances.

It is all about the intricacies of the performances, to the point where those expecting a more traditional Western might grow frustrated. It’s not about action or suspense, but the battle of wills. Cumberbatch’s Phil has a tone that seems inspired by Daniel Day-Lewis’s ambitious oil man in “There Will Be Blood,” except his fierceness is not unbending. He castrates a bull in one quick swoop, without hesitation, and washes secretly in the river. On purpose he lets Rose feel the humiliation of being abandoned at a dinner party with her husband’s upper class guests, where her lack of culture painfully shows, then appears at the end, proud of his dirt-smeared appearance. Phil also delights in calling George “fatso,” even around the ranch hands. But Peter, the dandy who inspires hollers from the other cowboys, comes under his wing. Phil teaches him to ride and begins knotting a lasso for the young man. Cumberbatch’s performance is masterfully subtle in evoking a hidden sexuality that is plain for us to see if we pay attention. There is little doubt Phil is gay, but has kept his nature woefully suppressed in this particular world. When he speaks with powerful admiration of a dead cowboy, Bronco Henry, who taught him everything, we sense another kind of potent connection in his memories. But Campion never drops the full revelation, as if a pressure cooker is never released. For Phil, being monstrous is what channels other frustrations. He embodies what Tennessee Williams meant about those who “hadn’t any pleasure in love, but just watched it with envy, sick envy.” 

Surrounding Phil are personalities chained in their own ways. George is too giving and too nice to ever really fight back against Phil’s presence. The two even share the same bedroom before Rose moves in. This is also the rare Campion film where the woman becomes a helpless background character, stripped of any agency. Kirsten Dunst’s performance is a person decaying before our eyes. Rose seems overshadowed by everyone because she has sought security in a marriage that is proving to bring more loneliness, made torturous by Phil. George seems to have more loyalty to his brother than to his wife, which only contributes to her eventual dive into alcoholism (an irony considering both actors are partners in real life). What can we feel for these characters other than pity? Peter seems to be the only one with sincerity and some confidence. He’s in college studying biology, and enjoys dissecting local rabbits and dead livestock he finds while learning the serenity of riding a horse alone. Is he perturbed? Maybe, as is everyone who feels adrift. The irony becomes that while George and Rose are apparently mismatched, Peter and Phil are the ones who spend meaningful time sharing wisdom and lessons out in the gorgeous landscapes, or by campfires.

“The Power of the Dog” takes its title from a Biblical passage both fierce and as archaic as the emotions in this film, if not its structure. Jane Campion tends to be a filmmaker of stark clarity. In “The Piano” and “Bright Star,” that luminous film about the poet John Keats and his one true love, we know who everyone is and what they seek. Here, surrounded by stirring views, to be fully open feels dangerous. Secret codes of conduct keep desires from being fulfilled and bitterness lingers like a toxin in the air. There is a scene where Phil demonstrates how Bronco Henry once taught him to find hidden shapes in the vast mountains near the ranch. The prime shape is that of a dog, cut into the mountain by local Native Americans, who themselves linger in the story like the ghosts of history Americans prefer to forget. Not everyone can see the shape, and likewise, this film does not reveal itself so easily, yet that’s part of its engrossing experience.

The Power of the Dog” releases Nov. 17 in select theaters and begins streaming Dec. 1 on Netflix.