How far is the distance between cruelty and kindness? On first glance, these concepts would seem to be polar opposites, but through the lens of Jane Campion’s stunning Western The Power of the Dog, we see that they’re frequently intertwined in a tragic confluence of intent and identity. Like the gorgeous vistas that permeate the backdrop of the film, we know that despite their beauty, these landscapes are treacherous and unforgiving to those who don’t know how to traverse them. In Campion’s hands, love is the deadliest weapon because it’s so beguiling, and to live in loneliness creates a desperate heartbreak where anything is possible. The emotions swirling around this masterpiece constantly bewitch and beguile the audience as we’re drawn deeper into the desires consuming the main characters. With incredible performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog is easily one of the best films of the year and a poignant examination of where we choose to leave ourselves vulnerable.
Set in 1925 Montana, brothers Phil (Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) run a successful ranching operation. While Phil prefers the rough-and-tumble life of a rancher, George prefers the refinement his wealth has brought him. He turns his eye towards Rose Gordon (Dunst), who runs the local inn with her quiet, introspective son Peter (Smit-McPhee). Phil shows no compunction towards mocking the feminine Peter and believes that Rose is only after George for his money. Nevertheless, George marries Rose, who quickly feels even lonelier next to a man who may be nice but wants her to perform a social role she feels ill-equipped to handle. Meanwhile, the aloof Phil feels disdain towards this new family unit, but when he’s spotted in a vulnerable state by Peter, he chooses to befriend the young man even though that only causes more strife for Rose.
At the center of The Power of the Dog, you have the acute loneliness of both Phil and Rose. Phil is college-educated and a successful rancher who gets along well with his employees, but he’s also ruthless, mean-spirited, and frequently cruel. His heart longs for Bronco Henry, the man who mentored him twenty years ago and taught him what he knew. As the film goes on, it’s abundantly clear that there was some kind of romantic relationship between the two men, but it’s one that could never be disclosed and now that Bronco is gone, Phil can’t even mourn honestly. He has to simply cheer on Bronco as a great cowboy rather than the man who had his heart. That loneliness has curdled into bitterness, and Phil now has no reluctance to lash out anyone who has the bonds he lacks.
Cumberbatch has never been better, and it’s a sly bit of casting from Campion. Cumberbatch is no stranger to playing sharp-tongued geniuses, but Phil Burbank is a different animal. In previous works, Cumberbatch played characters whose cruelty was to emphasize that they were the smartest person in the room, but deep down that cruelty masked a heroism or at least a good nature. There’s something broken inside Phil Burbank, and that sadness forces Cumberbatch to go places we’ve never seen him head before. It’s also a neat trick that Campion cast a man, who, with his lanky frame, doesn’t immediately scream “cowboy masculinity”, which only serves to emphasize the performance of that masculinity and how it has only serves to further isolate Phil from those around him.
His conflict with Rose emerges not because of anything she does in particular or even because she’s “stolen” George away from him. It’s because her loneliness reflects his own. In one poignant scene, she struggles to play some tunes on the piano, and Phil mocks her by playing a similar tune on his banjo. But the scene emphasizes how similar the two people are and how alone they feel even though they both have the love of George and Rose has the love of Peter as well. Their self-loathing and loneliness is causing them to cause harm, but whereas Phil lashes out at others, Rose turns inward and starts drinking. While toxic masculinity can still be seen as socially acceptable—like Phil’s cruelty towards Peter being cheered on by the ranch hands—Rose has no outlet for her pain, especially as she feels like she can’t be the woman that George wants her to be.
Dunst is, as usual, amazing. She continues to be one of our most underrated actors, and I have no idea why. You can’t look at the incredible performances across her career in films and TV shows like Marie Antoinette, Melancholia, Bachelorette, and Fargo Season 2 and deny her range. In Power of the Dog, she’s playing well beyond years as a woman who had carved out a way to live on her own a single mother on the frontier, and then is thrust into a world where she feels like an outsider, a feeling only exacerbated by Phil’s cruelty. The brilliant element of Dunst’s performance is how we understand Peter’s desire to protect his mother, but she’s not simply a frail object but someone who is now forced to look at her own fears and perceived shortcomings and why that would lead her to hide at the bottom of a bottle.
The way these characters’ loneliness manifests and the way that Peter chooses to insert himself as an emotional barrier by playing to Phil’s need for companionship makes The Power of the Dog absolutely mesmerizing. The story stakes are fascinating because while Phil is ostensibly the “main character”, Campion’s script turns that power on its head to tragic effect. There’s little “triumph” in The Power of the Dog as every beauty seems to hide a dagger. You can see it in Ari Wegner’s gorgeous cinematography and hear it in the haunting strings of Jonny Greenwood’s alluring score. Everything Campion does in this film leads to an emotionally complex place where nothing is a matter of “good” and “bad” but rather the love we seek and how it can turn against us.
The Power of the Dog is now in theaters and on Netflix.