After 12 long years away from the big screen, the extraordinary auteur Jane Campion has returned, backed by Netflix, with an adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 American western psychodrama The Power of the Dog (2021). The film centres on two brothers, the charismatic but menacing Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), and the meek and gentle George (Jesse Plemons), successful Montana ranchers whose lives are quickly changed as George decides to marry the widowed mother Rose (Kirsten Dunst), who brings her doctor-to-be son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to live with them on the ranch.
Phil sees this incursion by Rose and Peter as a personal affront to his ideal world and responds by setting out to torture Rose psychologically in a sequence of scenes that has Campion at her venomous best.
The Power of the Dog sits on a knife’s edge for the entire runtime, with Campion keeping her cards close to the chest as the drama unfolds with the patience of a long novel. There are four central characters to the film and the audience is unsure throughout who is gaining the upper hand in the family dynamic and the film as a whole.
The film has a certain offbeat cadence in its storytelling. It will sit in quiet moments we are yet to understand the importance of, while other scenes quietly obscure that dramatic temporal shifts in the characters’ lives. A more traditional version of this film would climax with a violent confrontation between brothers, but the power of Campion’s writing and Savage’s prose comes from how we are being led through the fog into an illuminating, yet rather understated final act.
What’s always jumped out to me about Campion’s writing is her ability to complicate seemingly archetypal characters into three-dimensional figures. There are countless examples in fiction of the sorts of characters in The Power of the Dog, but it’s Campion’s masterful command of storytelling that blooms in the grey areas, not by reducing everyone down to their lowest moments, but by elevating the humanity of even the most abhorrent figures.
Set in Montana but shot in New Zealand, The Power of the Dog relishes in the rolling hillsides of Campion’s homeland that feel overwhelming and mythical all at once. You truly feel the seasons change over the course of the film, from the encroaching white snow on the mountains and the farm which forces the family inside, to the glaring sunlight that ratchets up the tension.
Ari Wegner’s cinematography powerfully contrasts this natural world that is shot during as much magic hour as could be achieved I’m sure, with the almost German expressionist lighting choices inside the family home, giving those scenes a nightmarish quality. These lighting decisions help emphasise Cumberbatch’s angular features into a figure that haunts every inch of the Montana estate.
The Power of the Dog deploys an extraordinary use of both diegetic and nondiegetic music that echoes Campion’s breakout feature The Piano (1993), with possibly the first use in cinema of a banjo as an instrument of menace. Phil is constantly heard whistling a melody that buries itself under Rose and the audience’s skin that feels unrelenting. This sadistic side of Phil is so well established early in the film that even in the later stages where Campion opens Phil up to the audience, we are still able to see him from Rose’s perspective, creating a murkier area for the audience to perceive Phil as a character.
Much has been made of Cumberbatch’s performance and it certainly feels like the actor is in career-best form, although I will admit to not being a big fan of his work to date. The power of his performance lies in how Phil works to be outwardly projecting his idea of masculinity, and how that projection changes depending on who he is surrounded by. Campion captures fleeting moments with Phil that illuminate the character in truly spectacular ways, from his attachment to his brother’s presence, to how he luxuriates in the brief moments he’s able to wash away his protective armour in the river.
The connections to There Will be Blood (2007) are boundless here, even to the point of Plemon’s character originally planned to be Paul Dano before scheduling issues intervened. Greenwood’s atonal score at times felt like There Will be Blood B-sides but they quickly took on their own shape within this story. There are also moments where Cumberbatch carries a similar menace to Daniel Day Lewis’s character, but they are deployed in different and unique ways that work in their respective films. The two films are in conversation with each other visually, sonically, and thematically, with differing views on male desire and its relationship with ambition and cruelty. Both films are also so overpowering on initial watch – for completely different reasons – that repeated viewings feel necessary to fully grasp what you’re witnessing.
This film is a classic slow build that is working and growing on you long after you leave the theatre – or your couch as almost all viewers will see it on Netflix – which is common for most Campion films. She has also created an adaptation that truly sucks you into the story to the point of feeling compelled to immediately read Savage’s novel. This is not a world I particularly want to linger any longer in but is a story I have a deep desire to see how it compares to Campion’s interpretation.
There is a meticulous method to Campion’s unfolding narrative that may leave audiences cool and detached as rarely do moments feel spontaneous, which can work wonderfully in some films but detract from others. The Power of the Dog is a film that may feel expanded upon rewatch, as it takes time to fall into its syncopated rhythms. You could reduce the film down to a psychodrama about toxic masculinity, but that feels ultimately reductive to the work Campion is doing here.
The Power of the Dog is in select theatres now and will be available on Netflix December 1st.