Director Jane Campion’s (The Piano) latest project is an adaptation of author Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel The Power of the Dog. Her film, a taunt western-drama, chronicles the intersecting lives of two families across several months in Montana 1925. Each family brings with them some trauma, each family brings with them some kind of loneliness which can’t truly be undone. While not the best performances from a high-caliber cast, they are each mesmerizing in their own way, coercing their audience into rapt attention as every anticipated action or reaction presents itself in an unexpected form. Like in all films, details matter; however, in the case of Campion’s The Power of the Dog, if you allow yourself distraction, if you hesitate to engage for even a moment, you will be as lost as an unguided herd on the prairie.
In the wintry months of Montana, brothers George and Phil Burbank (Jesse Plemons and Benedict Cumberbatch), along with their ranch hands, deliver their herd into a nearby town where they are served food at a restaurant run by the widow Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), assisted by her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). There’s something which attracts George to Rose and the two soon wed, much to the ire of Phil who presumes she’s nothing more than a scammer looking to take hold of their riches. Not one to suffer anyone he finds foolish (and he thinks all are fools), Phil doesn’t take the new addition to their home or business well, finding new ways to torment Rose each day. As time passes, Phil doesn’t thaw like the weather, even when Peter comes to visit for the summer, bringing tensions to an all-new high.
The marketing for The Power of the Dog presents the film as a drama when, by all indications, the film is more accurately a thriller. It begins with an ominous word of warning from Smit-McPhee before we’re introduced to Phil, the score from Jonny Greenwood (You Were Never Really Here) fading in with a just-off-center tone that’s neither pleasing nor unpleasant, though it does imply a certain tension. Very quickly the audience comes to realize that Phil is the surly sort, always looking for a target for his barbs, as he refers to the man we would come to learn is his brother and business partner initially as “Fatso.” In his mind, it might be a term of endearment, but it’s also one intended to put his brother George in his place, a reminder to George that Phil is over him in their interactions. The surroundings (New Zealand doubling as Montana) are strewn with ice and snow, the mountains visible from near every direction as though we’re trapped within them. From the start, there is nothing but rough words and rough terrain, culminating in sensation of non-stop threats. Every so often, even amidst a moment of kindness or tenderness, there is that continued sense of malice (whether perceived or real is up to the audience to determine).
In one real sense, there’s a pervasive message that there’s no gentleness to be found on the range. That, if you’re not careful, nature will get you as easily as man. Perhaps this is why Phil manages his brother, the certainly quieter and gentler Burbank, with such a heavy hand and why, as he realizes that things are beyond his control, he finds ways to inflict pain on those who “disobey” him. His methods inspire fear and, often, result in the opposite desired effect. Bringing in the title of the film/novel, there’s a moment where Phil is asked about a deceased friend, Bronco Henry, and what Henry saw in the mountains: the shape of a dog. In a biblical sense, “the power of the dog” refers to a request of salvation from evil influence, from danger, specifically evil men. Now, we only know of Henry from Phil’s stories, and they are full of admiration and affection befitting a mentor and trusted partner. So it might seem that Phil is attempting to protect his loved ones, to control his grief, by forcing them to remain by his side. From a different perspective, given the destruction his rage, his jealousy, his personally-inflicted isolation, Phil may just be the dog. However, Phil is difficult to be impacted by natural threats due to his scholarly education (it’s hinted he was a classics and literature major for a brief time in university) and practiced hand on the range.
Depending on who you ask, this is either an ensemble piece with no leads or a more standard tale with leading and supporting roles. Given the time and focus spent on Phil, there’s an argument that Cumberbatch is the lead of Power and should be viewed as such. It’s certainly a different performance than audiences have seen from him, offering an opportunity to channel varying shades of grief, isolation, affection, jealousy, and all the colors in between as they relate to humanity. But, in many respects, this is Peter’s story, not Phil’s, which would make Smit-McPhee the lead, even if the character isn’t as present nor as arresting. Given the kind of once-over that Phil is fond of, Peter is the least threatening of all the characters in the story. Smit-McPhee plays Peter with the stillness of someone outside of nature observing it, creative and artistic, yet strong in mind and constitution. He is, in a way, a fascinating blend of Phil and George, which we only truly realize upon the completion of the tale. Like the mountain range optical illusion, Smit-McPhee conveys a character who’s aware of what people make of him (loving and supportive to his mother, a potential weakness to Phil), yet exists separate from these ideas. While Plemons offers a performance suggestive of an actor taking on the legacy of the great work of beloved character actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman (Punch Drunk Love) and Dunst presents a profoundly layered performance of loss, regret, and sorrow that will obliterate you, this film does truly belong to Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee; it just takes a while to realize it, so dominating is Cumberbatch in presence.
The Power of the Dog is cold, cruel, and impossible to ignore. Well, not entirely impossible as the theater I viewed the film in experienced bleed-in from the neighboring films which meant at two very different dramatic moments I erupted into giggles as I heard both the No Time to Die and Halloween Kills themes respectively. Luckily, if your local theaters are as sound-proof as mine, The Power of the Dog can be viewed via Netflix starting on December 1st, 2021. While Ari Wegner’s (Zola) cinematography or Greenwood’s score may not hold up as well at home versus in the theater, there’s a greater chance you can control where your distractors come from and Campion’s film is one that you’ll want to direct all your focus onto. Heed this final warning: once you press play, don’t take your eyes off the screen. Everything you see, everything you hear, fills in the gaps of what isn’t shown and what isn’t spoken. In order to feel the full weight of The Power of the Dog, you need to heel.
In select theaters November 17th, 2021.
Available for streaming on Netflix December 1st, 2021.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.