“Everything comes together with a controlled deliberation.”
by Ken Bakely
I want to watch The Power of the Dog again. This wasn’t apparent to me for most of the runtime, but by the time it was over, it felt necessary. A big part of what makes Jane Campion’s film so extraordinarily effective – so harrowingly, tightly wound – is that it hardly seems like it is that from the beginning. Instead, everything comes together with a controlled deliberation. Tension slowly builds as clues unearth themselves, and it’s only when the film does start revealing with more haste, arriving at a rather stunning conclusion, that we as viewers realize how deftly the layers have been assembled. Based on Thomas Savage’s novel of the same name, the story is set in Montana, in 1925, and concerns crass rancher Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his more reserved brother, George (Jesse Plemons), who has just married Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widowed mother of a teenage boy named Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). It’s hardly a harmonious new family, with Phil’s domineering personality swallowing up anyone who he targets – he seems to reserve particular venom for the quiet, effete Peter. But for all the surface-level assessments he seems to make of his own, it would be wrong to make them regarding him: and indeed, it’s a slow peering into Phil’s thorny psyche that provides much of the movie’s perspective, as the guardrails he’s constructed to present his authoritarian style hide deeply-buried complications and secrets.
Perhaps it’s best presented in relational terms, and there are only about three people he seems to really interact with or discuss at all. The least among them is his brother, who he glibly bullies as if on autopilot; then there’s the one man – his deceased mentor, Bronco Henry – who he’s ever had a kind word to say about; and there is Peter, for whom his diametrically opposed personality somehow provides the opening gesture for Phil to begin offering a mentorship of his own. It’s in that last example that The Power of the Dog comes to focus most intensely, presenting it as a foil that starts peeling at the edges of Phil’s authoritarian, macho instincts. But it would be wrong to say it’s at the service of uncovering something else entirely, or at least something we can identify just as easily: if anything, he can only become more human. Instead, as we learn more, and as the film progresses and mounts in conflict, there’s always something new to mull over in relation to what we’ve come to assume.
Campion adeptly pieces this together, and Benedict Cumberbatch, as Phil, carefully works these factors into a tremendous performance. This is a character who shrouds himself in a version of masculinity that is not merely tough, but paranoid about showing it. The insecurities he exhibits – perhaps borne of someone not merely trying to defend their position and status but the fear of being known – have to creep around the edges, and Cumberbatch, whose work here is fascinatingly sequenced, starts outward – he’s brash, angry, acidic, ill-tempered – and slowly reduces to a quieter simmer, played on glances and reactions. He defies any expectations for the character, as does Kodi Smit-McPhee, whose Peter is, in his own way, also not what we first take him to be. He traverses opposing territory, starting inward – quiet, reserved, soft, flat – and increasing in verve and flare. The film, eventually, becomes about these two characters more than anything else. They are perhaps not as parallel as they seem, and over time, that could imply…
Well, I shouldn’t discuss that any further, because The Power of the Dog’s excellence in depth is matched by its revelation and presentation. Campion’s firm, sturdy direction is complemented by Jonny Greenwood’s claustrophobic score and Ari Wegner’s dusty cinematography, where even the sweeping wide shots of the frontier leave us peering for some hidden shadow. The rest of the cast is good as well, particularly Dunst, who takes what could have been a supporting character relegated to the sidelines and imbues her with a well-drawn sense of longing and loss, of a woman unable to ever feel truly at ease in this setting. The film is a richly imagined and meticulously executed look at not merely these people, in this place, at this time, but the dynamics and struggles which they carry with them. It’s about the tension between what’s made explicit and what’s kept shrouded in secret, and how they never seem so separate after a while. Campion is a magician with this material – not in the sense that she surprises us as a gimmick, but that she guides the proceedings with complete control over what we might look for and what we think we find. We watch along, we arrive at the end, and it’s something quite different. But one thing seems clear, even after just one viewing: everything was there, right from the start.