The Power of the Dog: Jane Campion Returns with Another Masterpiece
Film lovers rejoice! After a twelve-year absence from the big screen (though you could find her on television at the Top of the Lake), Jane Campion is back with her first feature since 2009’s Bright Star, and — though I implore her not to take another decade away — The Power of the Dog is well worth the wait: it may very well be the year’s best film. Adapted by Campion from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name, The Power of the Dog takes place on the frontier of 1920s Montana, replete with gorgeous western landscapes (shot by Ari Wegner) and dusty cowboys. Brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) work as ranchers, making a successful living from their cattle in particular. But when George falls for innkeeper and restaurateur Rose (Kirsten Dunst), their romance throws the cruel and volatile Phil’s world out of orbit, and he sets out to make Rose’s life a living hell — a mission that ultimately ends up both reinforced and complicated by the presence of Rose’s son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
To reveal much more would be (for those unfamiliar with the novel) to deprive one of the great pleasures of Campion’s script. Campion’s prodigious skill as a director is such that her talents as a writer are perhaps underappreciated (despite an Academy Award win for The Piano): she remains among the very best at complex, humanist drama, and The Power of the Dog falls right in line with her smartest works — even while working in a slightly different register. Like The Piano, In the Cut, and Holy Smoke, her latest traffics in psychosexual drama, but the burn is slightly slower here without being any less engaging. There’s a mastery of tone and pacing at work here: patience reigns supreme, and nothing less than the entire runtime is necessary to fully understand the impact of each decision made in the preceding two hours. Deliberate but never dull, with canny chapter breaks to evolve the story, Campion ushers us through with the confidence of a showperson who knows they can evoke any emotional response they desire from the audience — without the need to resort to cheap tricks.
It’s reasonable to have this sort of confidence when you’re as skilled with actors as Campion has proven to be across her career. Not only did she assist both Holly Hunter and a pre-teen Anna Paquin in securing Oscars, but she directed a superstar in Meg Ryan to perhaps the best performance of her career, though it (wrongheadedly and condescendingly) wasn’t recognized as such at the time. Campion’s done it again in The Power of the Dog, taking a household name in Benedict Cumberbatch and helping him reach the absolute pinnacle of his craft. As Phil, a phenomenal Cumberbatch embodies an incredibly specific and complicated type of masculine figure, one whose very idea of what a man should be is constantly eating him up from the inside. An excellent actor who can at times be prone to more mannered, tic-heavy performances, Cumberbatch provides a naturalistic emotional undercurrent while helping Campion weaponize his inherent menace. The film requires him to be both a towering, cruel presence and a sympathetic figure — always a hard line to walk, but Cumberbatch manages it without ever tipping into caricature one way or the other.
Though Cumberbatch may stand at the center of The Power of the Dog, the rest of the primary cast plays their roles to perfection as well. Plemons has shown incredible range over the years, with an ability to turn up the eccentricity when required, but smartly underplays things here as the more reasonable half of the mismatched brotherly pair. Dunst has the more difficult role of the two, with a character arc that has historically trended towards the overwrought, but makes great use of her expressiveness and watery-eyed charm to temper her throughline into something more closely resembling reality. And finally, the young Kodi Smit-McPhee turns in almost as tricky a balancing act as Cumberbatch, with his Peter functioning as the foil to Phil’s notion of masculinity — their scenes together, particularly in the last act, crackle with a contrasting and counterbalancing energy that infuses the entire film with tension and unease (helped by a beautiful and unnerving score by Jonny Greenwood, who, between this and Spencer, has made a compelling case for composer of the year).
As I write this, it’s been several days since I saw the film and I find that I can’t stop thinking about it. For a film with so much on its mind — gender dynamics, familial relationships, and the friction between the frontier and the modern world, just to name a few — there’s never a sense that its reach exceeds its grasp. At a point during the film, we see the process of braiding a leather rope, and it’s a fitting metaphor for what Campion does here: she has isolated individual components and ideas, cut them into an ideal form, and woven them together into an intricate, unified, and bracingly strong whole. Like an expert craftsman, Campion has pulled everything into its proper place, creating something airtight but far from antiseptic, beautiful artistry and brutal effectiveness coexisting in thrilling fashion. I bemoaned earlier how long she’d been gone: perhaps with The Power of the Dog Campion is merely reminding us that she’d never left.