The Power of the Dog is the Jane Campion film we’ve been hoping for from the New Zealand director ever since The Piano came out in 1993. Not that Portrait of a Lady, Bright Star and the Meg Ryan non-period anomaly In the Cut weren’t all good, but her latest (now on Netflix) is very much on brand: strange, mysterious, full of psychological shading and stark emotion spread across an exotic landscape, much like The Piano. It has the spook.
Based on a Thomas Savage novel, The Power of the Dog takes place in Montana, 1925 (New Zealand filling in for the lonesome prairies), where brother ranchers Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons) encounter Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), a widow who runs an inn, during their cattle drive.
The movie’s title comes from ‘Psalms’ (‘Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog’) and it’s a good allusion for a movie that feels timeless, surreal and hypnotic, but also as precise and cutting as a surgical tool.
Phil stands out. With his dirt-caked rawhide and jingle-jangling spurs, he’s the alpha among a pack of young rancher dudes who worship his every utterance. He sets to work ridiculing Rose’s son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), an artistic teen with a lisp.
Phil is irresistibly drawn to the past, including his ranching apprenticeship with Bronco Henry — a kind of mythic, unseen figure of masculinity and frontier toughness that Phil references constantly. George, meanwhile, thinks cattle herding for 25 years with his brother is long enough; he wants to settle down, and quickly marries Rose. They all live together on the parents’ ranch.
Despite Phil’s exaggerated masculinity (he refuses to take baths as his brother does, perhaps because it seems too refined), he also has an artistic bent: he intuitively understands music (plucking away at a banjo absently) and possesses a sharp wit, not to mention a special knack for torturing Rose with withering remarks.
All the key players here are excellent, but Cumberbatch commands the screen in this Gothic Western, as he must: he’s way too smart to be a dumb cowhand, but takes pleasure in being the cock of the walk, and putting Rose in her place whenever possible.
What follows is a kind of frontier version of Gaslight. George is largely absent, away on business trips, which allows Phil to torment Rose and Peter at his leisure. When George installs a baby grand piano, so that Rose (with her rudimentary playing skills) can entertain the visiting governor and his wife, Phil lurks in the wings while she practices, creaking around the house in his spurs and mimicking her on banjo, leaving her psychologically battered.
Rose takes to drinking — yet another weakness for Phil to exploit. Dunst does a fine job of capturing the inner pain and dis-ease of her character, something she’s particularly skilled at (Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia comes to mind).
The eerie score by Jonny Greenwood lends an undertone of steel-trap tension throughout. When he’s not a figure of towering menace, Phil is often shown standing against a plain, bolt upright like a gopher, or in another scene, rooting around amongst fallen forest trees.
He’s more comfortable in nature, not fancy society; but the tangled earth, like the subconscious, hides deeper meanings. His misogyny towards Rose and homophobia towards Peter conceal a nest of secrets. We see him lovingly polishing Bronco Henry’s old saddle. More revelations come to light.
Peter emerges as his mother’s protector. Mocked and shunned by the other ranch hands, he nevertheless gets taken under the wing of Phil, who perhaps fancies himself a mentor like Bronco Henry. But Peter is a youth of peculiar interests and passions: to avoid the ranch hands’ abuse, he holes up in his room drawing, studying books on biology and diseases.
The movie’s title comes from “Psalms” (“Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog”) and it’s a good allusion for a movie that feels timeless, surreal and hypnotic, but also as precise and cutting as a surgical tool.
Showing on Netflix.