Movie Review: The Power of the Dog (2021)

“He taught me to use my eyes to see.”

The Power of the Dog is the eighth feature film from New Zealand writer/director Jane Campion, and her first since 2009’s Bright Star. An adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, she was drawn to the project by the main character of the book, Phil Burbank, calling him one of the most complicated figures in American literature. No small praise, it’s a departure for Campion whose films up to this point have mostly featured female protagonists. 

The story concerns two brothers on an opulent cattle ranch in Montana: Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), a feisty cowboy, and his reserved brother George (Jesse Plemons). When George meets a young widow (Kirsten Dunst) who runs a bed and breakfast along their popular cattle drive trail, he promptly marries her and settles her and her teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) on the ranch with him and Phil. Needless to say, Phil does not deal well with this change.

Set in Montana in 1925, I was astonished to learn that the wide open plains and barren mountain crags were actually all shot on location on the southern island of New Zealand. Cinematographer Ari Wegner has said she and Campion were influenced by American realist art, particularly the works of Andrew Wyeth. They do excellent work depicting the American West with a limited color palette, all smudgy browns and faded greens in the exteriors, with dark blues and browns for the interiors. It’s minimal, less flashy than other Campion features, and allows the visuals to speak clearly without getting in the way of the very complicated characters. Johnny Greenwood’s score follows the same strategy, often present but thinly orchestrated with strings, solo French horn, player piano, and nervous guitar plucking – mostly separate, rarely combining instrument families. Wegner’s camerawork is mostly Steadicam until a jarring switch to handheld in a tense confrontation toward the end (unlike In the Cut which had some of the most unnerving handheld camerawork I’ve ever seen).

Wegner’s eye tastefully explores the deeply emotional relationship between the characters and the landscape they inhabit. Even with the grand mountain and prairie horizons, the cast’s faces are the deepest canvases. We learn less about them from dialogue and more through extreme close-ups, fixated on George’s tear-stained cheeks, the luminous pools of Peter’s eyes, and Cumberbatch’s clenched jaw.

The camera lingers on the rippling torsos of naked and half naked ranch hands. Campion’s casts are always taking off their clothes, but this showcase of flesh feels different, more matter of fact, than the frank eroticism of her other efforts. Phil and his gang constantly stripping is in direct contrast to George wearing the frilliest suits he can find. Even though he puts on airs in expensive tuxedos, with perfectly coiffed hair, he doesn’t seem to have a firm grasp on any other area of his life. There’s a nice touch in a scene where he approaches mucky Phil wearing a fancy suit, but his bowtie is crooked, making him seem even weaker. Typical of Campion, even the smallest details are rich with symbolism. A bull getting its testicles cut off isn’t the only metaphor here for wounded masculinity.

In a movie centered around people who struggle to articulate their inner thoughts and desires, there are many silent moments where we see them physically vent sadness, anger, and frustration. After a round of bullying from Phil, Peter runs outside to blow off some steam hula-hooping. When Phil mocks her for her poor piano playing, Rose says nothing but dissolves into a tearful mess of shudders and gasps. As she begins to feel more and more helpless, Dunst does a marvelous job portraying Rose as an amateur drunk ailing in bed, hiding brandy bottles in the linens, and retching in the alleyway.

Meanwhile, Cumberbatch is a tour de force of simmering passion and anger. He lies in bed angrily plucking his banjo when something doesn’t go his way. He unnerves Rose with whistling when she’s trying to practice her piano. In frustration, he beats a horse. He slowly rolls and lights a cigarette in the presence of his betters to show them he doesn’t care about their “societal airs,” even though he used to be one of them. He got his degree from Yale but got drawn back into frontier life through a very singular and meaningful mentorship. For a very talkative character, it’s Cumberbatch’s physical acting that draws us into who Phil is. Every time we think we know him, Cumberbatch shows us a different angle, and we have to begin all over again.

I don’t want to make it sound like this is a dialogue-free movie or the dialogue is somehow unimportant, just that the visual flourishes are doing so much more work. At the same time, what you see is seldom what you get because it’s so rich in metaphor. An emergency fire escape rope in the bed and breakfast becomes one of the most important symbols later on. A simple waiter’s napkin stands in for an entire way of life that Phil despises.

Similar to many Campion films, The Power of the Dog is exploring man’s inability to listen, and a woman’s desires being smothered because of it. George marries Rose just so he doesn’t have to be alone. Shortly after, he buys her a piano to make her happy, not listening to her insistence that she doesn’t play much and isn’t very good. He then leaves her at the ranch with Phil for an extended period of time, blind to the fact that Phil is driving her mad with his terrifying antics. In an early scene, she decries guests drinking wine in her establishment, but Phil’s torment drives her to booze in record time. But is it only Phil’s abuse that fills her with desperation and sadness? She’s shoved aside by the men in her life too quickly for us to know.

The real bottled up emotions belong to the Burbank brothers. George is so cowed, he can barely talk to Phil in complete sentences, let alone confront him for being an asshole. Phil, though loquacious and confident, is incapable of acknowledging his inner needs and emotions, because he thinks he has everything he needs in his adopted passion of the cowboy grind. He castrates a bull with a knife and his bare hands. He gives himself a mud bath in the river. He drives cattle across the foothills and stares transfixed at the mountains surrounding the ranch. But if anything threatens his way of life, he becomes like a cornered badger.

It’s incredible how much he exults in the land. He’s able to see beauty and signs from the land that no one else can. It is the rough and tumble life that he loves, exhilarated by the dirt and grime, hateful toward the buttoned up existence of the encroaching modern world. He rides his horse with ease while George and the family trundle around in new cars (Cumberbatch prepared for the role in Montana, learning horseback riding, roping, and even horseshoeing). Like many Westerns, it is about a man clinging to a way of life that he doesn’t realize is already in the past. Wearing his furry, wide-legged chaps, the rich Yalie has adopted the broadest cowboy swagger he can, and he’ll be damned if anyone will try to change any of it around him.

The film is a very slow burn but there’s no stick of dynamite at the end of the fuse. No sudden burst of passion, sex, or violence. It doesn’t end explosively like many westerns or There Will Be Blood (another movie about a charismatic 1920s man struggling to control the world around him). The characters of Peter and Phil form a V shape, one descending as the other rises. Peter can evolve, but, underneath his machismo, Phil is too afraid.

As the film goes on, Phil’s treatment of Peter dissolves from making fun to teaching him ranch life. Just why he does that is one of the movie’s many open questions. Maybe he thinks Peter is the ideal candidate for continuing the mentor tradition that benefited him. Or maybe his attraction to Peter is laced only with sexual feelings, or a desire for domination. Maybe he recognizes how observant Peter can be and he wants to develop that into seeing the world Phil’s way. Little does he know, Peter’s motivations for accepting Phil’s tutelage may have a far darker purpose.

Dunst, Plemons, and McPhee give tasteful performances, underplaying it for the most part, and McPhee more than holds his own against Cumberbatch’s bravado. However, Cumberbatch is truly in a class of his own here. He has given us one of the most magnetic and complex performances of the century so far, and the movie wisely doesn’t allow the story to stray from him too much. Even if he’s not center stage in a scene, he’s lurking around the edges, lest the slow pace struggle without his charisma. Every gaze, every expression of the eyes from him is wrought with so many different feelings, he can’t be reduced to just a toxic man or a sexually confused man or a society man playing the rancher. He is all of those things and more, begging us to ask who a man is, rather than who the social order has asked him to be. 

The film’s ambiguous ending strengthens the theme of giving your beloved the rescue line you think will save them, rather than what they can’t tell you they really need. “What kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother?” Peter wonders. There is a dry fountain in the final shot, symbolizing Rose may be saved, for now, but there’s no indication she could find any more hope in her marriage to George. Such is the classic Western: the plight of women and the stubbornness of men.