Adapted from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name, The Power of the Dog follows brothers Phil (Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons), owners of a successful cattle ranch in 1925 Montana. Their already turbulent relationship is placed under further strain when George marries widowed innkeeper Rose (Kirsten Dunst), bringing her and her timid son, Pete (Kodi Smit-McPhee), home. Once there, Phil endeavours on an insidious war of intimidation against his new sister-in-law and nephew.
Despite its American Midwest setting, Campion shot The Power of the Dog in her native New Zealand. The grandiosity of the landscape echoes the complexities of the film’s focal point, Phil Burbank. Benedict Cumberbatch delivers one of the best performances of his acclaimed career as the churlish yet multifaceted rancher; Phil is sophisticated yet surly, wildly astute but viscously acerbic. He disguises his education through perpetually mud-stained hands and imitation of his mentor, Bronco Henry, a man mythologised by Phil. Despite petulant insults, Phil cares deeply for his brother, but his hectoring of Rose stems from a fear of irrelevance rather than a genuine concern for George. His sinister torment descends Rose into alcoholism, in time for her son Pete to return to the ranch from boarding school where he initially becomes victim to the same ridicule.
Often to Phil’s ire, Plemons’ George is softly indifferent to his brother’s bullying: their interactions are littered with slurs like “fatso.” The height of Plemons’ performance comes during an especially melancholy scene shared with Rose after they are married. After this, the secondary focus is shifted to Rose and her descent into drunken disarray at the hands of Phil. Kirsten Dunst expertly portrays Rose’s insurmountable anxiety and feelings of inadequacy; unfortunately, upon Pete’s arrival at the ranch, she is relegated to the periphery as secondary focus is placed on the young man and his burgeoning relationship with Phil. A victim of rampant homophobia, Smit-McPhee’s Pete is lanky and effeminate, but wickedly intelligent and quietly Machiavellian. At first, his relationship with Phil seems to be nothing more than another way for the rancher to agonise Rose, yet as the secrets of Phil’s past are revealed their dynamic becomes more ambiguous.
While taking place almost 100 years ago, The Power of the Dog’s story and exploration of what it means to be a man is astonishingly relevant. Phil’s masculinity is pitifully fragile, his homophobic and misogynistic abuse originate from his own insecurities and he’s prone to outbursts of anger when his authority is challenged. His initial torment of Pete is prompted by George inadvertently embarrassing him in front of his ranch hands.
However, there is an innate tragedy to the brutish rancher which Campion delves into beautifully. Intimate camerawork mixed with Cumberbatch’s vulnerable performance portrays the desperate longing felt by a complex man hiding who he really is. Campion presents the inability to accept who you truly are as the root of conflict and antagonism; she contrasts Phil with George and Pete who are both perfectly content with themselves. Jonny Greenwood’s score, often hauntingly dissonant, compounds the emotions and conflicts – both internal and external – portrayed onscreen.
An ominous psychodrama that transitions into a profound character study, The Power of the Dog, admittedly, isn’t for everybody. Long, pulchritudinous shots of the striking New Zealand landscape occasionally slow down the film’s pace and the plot feels a tad underdeveloped. However, the sensory imagery Campion presents immerses you into the film’s world, and the brilliantly developed characters eclipse any narrative shortcomings. Along with Campion’s masterful direction, the magnificence of Cumberbatch’s performance cannot be overstated; the pair’s blistering study of masculinity is a thought-provoking experience best suited to the big screen.