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Phil Burbank is a rancher from the 1920s who is a natural horseman and a capable leader of men. He’s also a sadist, a maestro of psychological abuse, and one of the scariest villains you’ll see in a movie this year, thanks to Benedict Cumberbatch‘s horrible, fascinating performance.
Despite this, he may be less frightening than proud, relishing in his control over the land and its vast and small things. He is particularly proud of his gift of sight, which allows him to see things that others cannot, such as the bizarre, enigmatic vision created by shadows in the hills near his Montana ranch. “Is there something there?” one of his men inquires. “Not if you can’t see it, there ain’t,” Phil responds.
“The Power of the Dog,” Jane Campion’s superbly played, insidiously captivating adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, is about the riddle of the seen and hidden. It, like that literature, is built around a series of skillfully veiled surprises, which modern discourse refers to as spoilers but are better understood as ingenious perceptual tricks.
With its morning cattle drives set against melancholy gray skies and rugged landscapes, this film has a lot to offer. (Ari Wegner’s magnificent cinematography begs to be seen in one of the theaters where the film will be shown before it is released on Netflix on December 1.) But there’s a lot more buried in plain sights, like the fact that these Montana wilds were actually shot in Campion’s own New Zealand, which seems oddly apt in a film about deception.
Power of the Dog First Look
At first look, Phil and his brother, George (Jesse Plemons), appear to be the epitome of sibling harmony, maintaining their ranch while their city-dwelling parents are away (Frances Conroy and Peter Carroll). Their distinctions are noticeable, although they are mostly complementing.
Phil is definitely an alpha in a film where dogs are both vital laborers and powerful symbols: He’s a man of the earth, like his adored mentor, Bronco Henry, whose memory he clings to like a talisman, always dirtying and bloodying his hands and only washing infrequently in a nearby river.
George, dubbed “fatso” by Phil, is his gentlemanly opposite, always freshly showered, nicely dressed, and always polite. The two have a straightforward sibling relationship, but the air between them is packed with tension, as if even the tiniest jolt may cause their fragile dynamic to shatter.
The Burbank brothers and their men get a jolt when they stop at an inn and restaurant managed by a widow named Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) and are served by her soft-spoken son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil unleashes a volley of invective after taking one look at the carefully cut paper-flower decorations on the dinner table — and at the trim, an elegant-mannered young guy who designed them — in a chain of events that unfolds with exquisitely regulated tension.
Rose bursts into tears as a result of the scathing attack on her son, which George is quick to brush away. His consolation turns into something more quickly but truly, and the two marry soon after — a move that enrages Phil, in part because he thinks he is solely to blame.
Campion has deliberately cut down Savage’s text — Rose’s first husband, who is still alive in the novel’s early chapters, has been dead for four years when the film begins — and fractured the narrative with chapter breaks that speed rather than split the story’s rising momentum.
When Peter goes off to college to study medicine and Rose settles onto the Burbanks’ ranch, George does everything he can to make her feel at ease, while Phil does the exact opposite. Campion knows a thing or two about young brides in tough situations, and fans of her 1993 masterpiece, “The Piano,” will no doubt rejoice when George gently buys Rose a baby grand piano as a present. (Fans of Dunst and Plemons, who are a real-life couple, will be comforted by Campion’s fleeting moments of bliss in their on-screen marriage.)
Phil’s gently controlling influence spreads through the house like a toxic fog, filling its dull, cavernous spaces until they feel as vast and unsettled as the surrounding grasslands, suffocating Rose’s love of the piano, as well as her spirit.
Campion, who just won the director prize at the Venice International Film Festival, twists the traditions of her putative genre inside out in one sense. “The Power of the Dog” is a psychological thriller masquerading as a western, as well as a possible love story masquerading as a psychological thriller. Everything about it, from Grant Major’s minimalist, enveloping production design to Jonny Greenwood’s nerve-shredding dissonances, draws our attention inside.
The faces of its four exceptional performers may be the most remarkable sceneries in the film. The camera lingers on Smit-gaunt, McPhee’s delicate features, which may hide a lot, and Plemons’ softer face, which hides almost nothing. Rose shrinks under the weight of Phil’s serial humiliations and descends into alcoholism, partaking of the booze she had previously disavowed.
Dunst, meanwhile, twists her countenance into a mask of pain and desolation as Rose shrinks under the weight of Phil’s serial humiliations and descends into alcoholism, partaking of the booze she had previously disavowed. (The film starts in 1925, a year before Montana became the first state to end Prohibition enforcement.)
Then there’s Cumberbatch, who is equally enthralling in a long shot of him riding a horse as he is in a glowering closeup. The rough frontiersman isn’t the first character for Cumberbatch, who is known for his clean-shaven elegance and British schoolmaster’s diction, but his performance, which blends steely wit and reckless physicality, has you wondering why no one thought of it sooner.
Despite this, he appears to draw as much from his own screen history as he does from it. You get a sense of this when Phil compares himself and his brother to Romulus and Remus in an early speech; he’s more intelligent than his chaps and spurs and filthy habits suggest, which is unsettling in and of itself. His hatred for Rose and Peter seemed to stem from something more sinister and vengeful than simple roughneck stupidity.
Power of the Dog Peter Returns
When Peter returns from school to visit his mother, though, that vindictiveness seems to fade — or is it deepening? — and, against all odds, he begins to build an uncanny affinity with his erstwhile tormentor. Is Phil taking the young man under his wing because he’s had a change of heart, or is he simply trying to keep his enemy close?
The ambiguity of intent is intriguing; for the first time, he appears to have met someone with a penetrating gaze comparable to his own. Peter isn’t making paper flowers anymore; he’s dissecting small animals for research, and he’s doing it with the clinical dispassion that his vocation demands.
His actions may remind you of Phil’s own surgical expertise as he braided a rope — a process that needs strength and stamina, as well as delicacy and coordination. It’s also a great visual metaphor for how the story’s strands are woven tautly and inexorably together.
Campion’s trademark is defined by his near-tactile attention to detail, which stands out in a genre dominated by a big-picture sweep. Holly Hunter’s virtuoso talent with the ivories in “The Piano,” but also the ardor with which Abbie Cornish’s fingers clutch a love letter in the exquisite 19th-century romance “Bright Star,” have always been particularly attentive to her characters’ hands and handiwork.
Campion has spent her career delving into the deep interior lives of these and other women, bringing to life desires that they are often obliged to suppress or subsume. It’s no surprise that she has a razor-sharp understanding of the twisted norms and inconsistencies of American manhood.
“The Power of the Dog” represents Campion’s victorious return to the form, a nervy bet that becomes a reassertion of her mastery, 11 years after “Bright Star” (she co-directed and co-wrote two seasons of the mystery drama series “Top of the Lake” in the interim). Although this part of Montana is novel in terms of geography, nothing about its mysteries and undercurrents feels foreign to a filmmaker who has always felt most at ease in open spaces.
The story is handled with puzzle-box precision by Campion, but the film’s force extends beyond its mechanical structuring and shocking, emotionally rewarding conclusion. It remains in those tense times when Phil, so proud of his vision yet so blind to the human implications, catches a peek of what lies ahead of him too late.
Campion frames him via a barn doorway or a window on several occasions, trapping him against a landscape that appears to be as little, as finite, as he is. He’s no longer frightening; instead, he’s afraid.