Over two perfectly tuned hours, The Power of the Dog slowly and meticulously reveals what it is. Though it is striking and engaging from the outset, the mercurial nature of the film (as it fluidly changes shape with its characters) is the real draw. It always coheres, especially thematically, but it is not until the end that you realise quite how precise the whole enterprise was: a taut and twisted thriller hiding behind a powerful character study, and an academic exploration of gendered dynamics. It is the harsher cousin to Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow (2020), The Power of the Dog another female helmed Western (Jane Campion directs after over a decade away from feature film making) that uses the possibilities of the genre in challenging and always engaging ways. Both this and First Cow understand class and context, and how the encroaching society will change the world forever.
Though it takes its time to flesh out all of its primary cast, The Power of the Dog primarily follows Benedict Cumberbatch’s Phil Burbank, a charismatic rancher. Cumberbatch’s performance is the best I’ve seen from him, by some stretch, though a lot of this is down to perfect casting and superb direction. Phil is a mythic figure, the prototypical Western hero that people want to hear stories from, look up to and, quite simply, aspire to be. He’s rugged, never washes and rides a horse like it’s an extension of himself. He is a masculine archetype that threatens to overtake the world of the film, this gendered reality becoming the film’s central focus. Where so many Westerns deal with the times and how they are a changing, this one uses that motif to comment on masculinity, class and power dynamics. We have trains and cars alongside cows and horses, but these aren’t encroaching, they are already here: often shot as blending into the backdrop. But Phil is not of this world, his world is one of dirt, myth and spit, a rugged reality fading off into the distance. The times they have a changed.
Our initial conflict comes from his brother, George (Jesse Plemons). The film finds a number of engaging ways to set them up as foils but never feels rote or simplistic. All characters here are layered and, as the film progresses, we learn more about each individual and the film grows far more interesting. George craves for society, pushing himself more into the roaring twenties, or the life of the gentleman. Though, this is at odds with the past of each character: Phil has a degree in Classics from Yale, plays the banjo beautifully and keeps artefacts in a precise collection; George didn’t make it to college and was taken on by older brother Phil into the rancher life instead. Yet, each somewhat yearns for what the other has, or might have. Though, it is never as simple as this. The beating heart of the film is an assortment of characters all trying to live as idealised versions of themselves, all dogged by the past and existing as an imagined future self in a crushing present. It is a beautifully handled dynamic that is displayed in multiple ways; as the film progresses, George gets a wife, Rose (Kirsten Dunst) in the hopes of establishing himself as the person he thinks he is (but also out of love, empathy and connection). From here on it is a sequence of chiastic shifts and subtle power plays, especially as the involvement of Rose’s son from her first marriage, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) becomes more pronounced.
Campion creates a perfect set of counterposing tools and uses them with precision, cleverly dissecting masculine toxicity while also exploring wider structures and contexts. Power dynamics change as circumstances and social circles change, and the film continues to stay a step ahead of the audience. We learn so much about each character and often through their physicality alone. The Power of the Dog is a slow burn, a film with long atmospheric stretches that rely on inference. The core narrative creeps up on you, and in reality is the kind of narrative you would expect in a different film. Here, it exists in the backdrop before coming clear at the end; though, so much remains unsaid and implied. The film uses the language of gestures, glances and posture, speaking loudly through pronounced silences. It is assured and confident filmmaking backed up by superb cinematography and a solid Jonny Greenwood score. This score is not as revelatory as some of his wider work but is used so well by the film, rising perfectly out of sequences and underscoring moments with grace.
This film is a remarkable achievement. It is so well to do and so handsomely made, but hides such a subversive and challenging darkness. It is also riveting thriller, one in which the threat of implied violence permeates so many frames, bringing a tension that’s hard to articulate. The film has the quality of a clenching fist, even if the swing never quite happens. This all loops back to the times and the changing, and how the changes are so much more subtle, but so much more important, than what you may at first think. Campion sets a film in the past that has so much to say about our present: about gender and power and about the people we try to live as. It is a challenging and satisfying work, with a devilishly clever ending and note perfect performances. It is a phenomenal return from one of cinema’s strongest voices.