Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog opens with a voiceover, one that is never repeated again in the film. As the title card unfurls and the opening credits roll, we listen to Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) explain that in the aftermath of his father’s death, he felt it more necessary than ever to be a man for his mother, Rose (Kirsten Dunst)—that he would do anything in his power to protect her. It’s easy to find yourself so wrapped up in the austere unease of Campion’s first feature in over a decade that one might fully overlook the obviousness laden in Peter’s opening words, and uncertainty as to the film’s overt approach to its subject material is recurrent. But in a way, this introductory voiceover ties into a subversion of expectations, of men and masculinity, that is part of the point. Because when Peter is finally introduced in the film, it’s possible that you’ve fully forgotten the sentiment he decided to impart upon us. Perhaps that was his hope all along.
Based on the 1967 novel of the same name by Thomas Savage, Campion’s long-awaited return to the medium of film—following 2009’s Bright Star and her subsequent years spent working in television—feels apt for a director who has demonstrated prowess at crafting an atmosphere of acute disquiet. And so it goes for The Power of the Dog, a film with a perpetual twitching vein, carried by the ubiquitous feeling that someone could snap at any moment—until they do. In 1925 Montana, brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) are prosperous cattle ranchers but incompatible siblings. Phil is the ultimate image of machismo, brooding around the ranch ever adorned in his cowboy outfit and a thick layer of grime on his face, a rolled cigarette hanging against his lower lip; a character that acts in defiance of Cumberbatch’s past work. Phil is so opposed to anything even adjacent to what could be considered “feminine” that things like bathing, playing an instrument that isn’t a banjo and just being nice to women are the kinds of activities which might lead Phil to inquire “Fellas, is it gay if…?” on Twitter.
Phil also lives eternally in the shadow of the mythic Bronco Henry: A deceased cowboy and friend of Phil’s who embodied his masculine ideal. Meanwhile, George is a polished, well-to-do sort of man. He deflects his brother’s constant condescension and label of “fatso” with silence, and with the kind of patient stoicism skillfully deployed by Plemons and reminiscent of his slightly more bumbling turn in Fargo. Such a personality schism between the two brothers is an undaunted source of irritation to Phil. This is heightened as George takes a liking to “suicide widow” and owner of the local inn, Rose, and far intensified when, to Phil’s horror, George quickly marries her. Suddenly, George has committed the ultimate, anti-dude sin: Marrying and having sex with a girl. And not only will Rose be moving in with George and Phil at their ranch, but so will her waifish, effeminate son Peter, whose aspirations in the field of medicine are far more at odds with Phil’s ideas of masculinity than George could ever be.
Now living permanently at the ranch, Rose finds herself plagued with worry for the safety of her son. George’s more frequent absences from the ranch soon cause Rose to fear for her own wellbeing, leading her to hole up in her bedroom and succumb to alcoholism. There is a certain predictability to the trajectory of The Power of the Dog, where the eventual comprehension of its characters ends up almost panderingly obvious—and yet this allows for the reveal of what could be considered the film’s “twist” to hit that much harder. Still, it doesn’t take especially astute observation to realize that a trail of breadcrumbs had been laid out since the film’s very beginning. From the castration of the bulls on the Burbank ranch, to Phil’s status as the black sheep of his respectable family, to the nature of the western landscape tied to Phil’s performance of masculinity, the subtext is so visually hamfisted that it remains subtextual only by virtue of it not being directly spoken out loud.
But the clumsiness in the film’s approach to its subject matter is propped up by the compelling performances across the board—notably from Cumberbatch, whose embodiment of a gruff and grubby rancher is at first sort of laughably unbelievable in relation to the performances that have defined the Englishman’s career. But it is, perhaps, because of this very contrast to his past roles that Cumberbatch manages to fit into the character of Phil so acutely, carrying with him an inherent awkwardness and unrest in his own skin despite the terror that he strikes in the heart of someone like Rose. He’s matched by the chilling score, composed by the inimitable Johnny Greenwood (The Master, Phantom Thread), and impeccable cinematography from Ari Wegner (Zola, The True History of the Kelly Gang), which form a perfect union of tension, intimacy and isolation in a film where the sound of every slice, snip and click evokes the same distressing sensation regardless of the source. In this way, the film becomes far more compelling through its sheer technical mesmerism than through its depiction of repression—all in spite of the relative distance kept from the characters (and the lackluster arc of poor Rose, who Dunst still personifies achingly).
Nevertheless, Peter and Phil form an intriguing yin and yang. They embody two very differing, equally prickly visions of masculinity that complement that which manifests from them. Both men can see the dog in the Montana mountains: The shadow of the rock formations which forms the open mouth of a barking canine against the rolling hills, something that eludes Phil’s ranchers yet reveals itself easily to Peter. What does it mean to be a man? The Power of the Dog considers the question but never answers it. Instead, it is preoccupied with a timeless phenomenon: The suffering endured for the very sake of manhood itself.
Director: Jane Campion
Writer: Jane Campion
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie, Genevieve Lemon, Keith Carradine, Frances Conroy.
Release Date: November 17, 2021
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.