Jane Campion has kept busy enough in the 12 years since her last feature-length film, but her ice-blooded “The Power of the Dog” leaves the distinct impression that she spent every minute of that time sitting in a dark room and sharpening the same knife. Now, the “In the Cut” auteur returns with a poison-tipped dagger of a Western drama wrapped in rawhide and old rope; a brilliant, murderous fable about masculine strength that’s so diamond-toothed its victims are already half dead by the time they see the first drop of their own blood.
The shiv-like stealthiness of Campion’s approach may stem from the 1967 Thomas Savage novel on which “The Power of the Dog” is based, but it perfectly suits a filmmaker who’s long been fascinated by how weakness can be force’s most effective sheath. From “Sweetie” and “An Angel at My Table” to “Bright Star” and “Top of the Lake,” nearly all of Campion’s work is pitched along the nebulous border that runs between desire and self-denial, genius and insanity. The Wellington-born filmmaker is drawn to characters — artists, but not always — who make beautiful homes for themselves in the middle, even if the rest of the world simply assumes they must be lost.
To that end, perhaps the most basic (and least harrowing) of her latest film’s razor-fanged pleasures is how “The Power of the Dog” proves that no one is better at finding these people, or at recognizing how their supposed defects often provide the perfect disguise for their unique potential. Campion has become so sneaky good at panning for such things that you may not even notice her striking gold right before your eyes.
Like the semi-autobiographical book that inspired it, Campion’s adaptation is equal parts wish fulfillment and cautionary tale, and since the story is told without a dominant point-of-view — in a way that feels almost anthropological — it’s able to be each of those things for different characters at the same time. Then again, maybe there is a clearly defined man character, and he’s able to hide in plain sight; it’s often a sign of sloppiness when a movie opens with a voiceover that never returns, but here it echoes like evidence of a wickedly ingenious design.
No matter: The action unfolds on a booming Montana cattle ranch circa 1925, a quarter-century since the kindly George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) and his viperous older brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) started working the business their parents gave them — they exude what “Brokeback Mountain” author Annie Proulx referred to as “quiet wealth” in the afterward she wrote for the republication of Savage’s novel. One is a sweet and simple wallflower of a man; the other is the fork-tongued lovechild of Daniel Plainview and Jack Twist, prone to calling George “fatso” and making a spectacle of any perceived weakness he smells on a man. Even in their early 40s and with a whole mansion at their disposal, these two eligible bachelors sleep in the same room.
On an evening when the last rays of sunlight leave shadow puppets on the mountainsides and Jonny Greenwood’s lush score hangs particularly uneasy in the air, Phil takes George and the rest of his posse to the Red Mill restaurant where he makes life miserable for the widowed proprietress (Kirsten Dunst as Rose), and burns one of the paper flowers that her gentle teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) places on the dinner tables for decoration. You can only imagine Phil’s juvenile peevishness when his brother marries Rose not long thereafter, and Peter — prim and surgical, with a lisp — becomes the rough-and-tumble cowboy’s step-nephew.
To describe Phil as a poster boy for toxic masculinity would fail to capture the essence of a man whose testosterone has grown thick enough to clog the blood in his veins. This is a guy who makes John Wayne look like Paul Lynde, or would at least desperately want to if he were born 30 years later and didn’t think that television made you soft. He hates everything he can’t control, and only bathes in secret — preferring to let the grime from the cow testicals he cuts off all day long collect under his fingernails like a warning not to get too close. “I stink. And I like it,” Phil barks, eager for any chance to imply that his bite is so much worse.
Cumberbatch is astounding in the role, as the actor knots his default sarcasm into a lasso of constricted menace. The unforgettable performance that results — a definitive career-best — is at once both terrifying and terrified, though Phil would sooner die than admit what scares him. Cumberbatch plays each side of that equation at full tilt, as if Phil is constantly getting crueler in order to smother any gasping life from the lungs of his own kindness. It’s a back-and-forth set to music in the most ominous banjo scenes this side of “Deliverance.”
Phil believes with a zealot’s conviction that strength comes from conquering one’s own nature, just as he believes that success demands snuffing out anyone else’s chance to make a living on the same land (least of all the indigenous people from whom that land was stolen). At one point he punches a horse in the face. At another, his brother George serves dinner at the Red Mill with a napkin over his arm — a heart-stoppingly tender show of endearment for Peter — and you wonder how these two men could possibly have come out of the same woman.
Alas, Phil betrays the flaw of all pathologically cynical people, which is that they assume everyone else must be broken in the same way. They imagine people can only be bullies or victims — predator or prey. Rose seems to validate that theory, as she wilts into a little girl in the face of Phil’s hostility. Dunst is excellent in a role defined by desperate regression, and she and her real-life partner Plemons make a tender duo as they’re squeezed into the margins of this story together. That leaves Peter to step up and deliver his darling mom from the power of the dog (to paraphrase the Bible verse from which Savage’s book took its title), though he seems more interested in dissecting farm animals like a budding serial killer than he does in defending anyone’s life.
Compellingly expressed through Smit-McPhee’s reedy self-assurance (whose take on the character seems to stem from Savage’s description that “no one could close a door more quietly than he”), Peter’s desire is the mystery at the center of a rivetingly tense movie that screws tight like a Patricia Highsmith thriller without forsaking its Western splendor. Cinematographer Ari Wegner shoots the South Island of New Zealand as if it were a dream Montana once had, and Grant Major’s tactile production design troubles the film’s golden valleys and sun-kissed vistas with textures rich enough to reframe every aspect of this story for the role it plays in the tug-of-war between nature and civilization.
For all of the film’s biblical grandeur — and Campion’s delicious tendency to straddle the line between myth and memory during even the quietest scenes, her direction as besotted with Savage’s heartsick text as Phil is with the saddle that once belonged to his mentor, Bronco Henry — “The Power of the Dog” never insists upon itself. There isn’t a moment in the movie that lacks vision, but the whole thing exudes such a quiet strength that when one of Phil’s hyena-like goons asks “Has anyone ever seen what you’ve seen, Phil?,” it’s possible to understand how they’ve missed it. How they don’t see the shape of a dog cut into the side of the mountains with its jaw wide open and hungry.
But Phil, who hates himself so much that he’s incapable of imagining what love can do — and has already done — to him, may have some blind spots of his own, and it’s a testament to Campion’s sly adaptation that we are liable to overlook the same things. Just as Savage’s plainspoken novel found the author flexing the invisible muscles he developed over a lifetime of fighting his own desire, Campion’s equally poignant film leverages repressed passion into an unexpected show of strength. “The Power of the Dog” sticks its teeth into you so fast and furtively that you may not feel the sting on your skin until after the credits roll, but the delayed bite of the film’s ending doesn’t stop it from leaving behind a well-earned scar.
“The Power of the Dog” premiered at the 2021 Venice Film Festival. Netflix will release it in theaters on Friday, November 17, and on Netflix on Wednesday, December 1.