Some movies announce their intentions from the start, and some sneak up on you. The Power of the Dog is the latter. Its rough-hewn, side-glancing characters are full of secrets and unspoken intentions, thinking thoughts it didn’t even occur to you to imagine are in their heads. It’s a gothic thriller wrapped in a Western. It’s outstanding.
Stalking through the center of it is Benedict Cumberbatch, as Phil, a malevolent being with a façade that’s cracking. He is the sort of man who’s cruel because he’s scared he’ll be found out, because the secret he’s hiding is unthinkable, even to him. So his rage gets pushed outward toward his brother George (Jesse Plemons), George’s stepson Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and, especially, his new sister-in-law, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), whom he seems to despise just for being a woman.
Jane Campion — who hasn’t made a movie since 2009’s Bright Star, partly because she was busy making two seasons of Top of the Lake — is arguably the most celebrated woman director of our time, famous for telling women’s stories from a distinctly feminist perspective, so centering this one on Phil could seem surprising. But it makes sense. The Power of the Dog, which Campion adapted from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, is about the performance of manhood, the ways it can be gentle or can be soul-twisting, and the havoc its pressures can wreak on us all.
It’s also just a really great film.
The movie derives its title from Psalm 22, in which the writer, traditionally considered to be David (who was king of Israel), is beset by dangers and pleads with God. “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog,” he writes. It’s a cry for intervention, because danger is everywhere, nipping at the door.
Danger lurks around the edges of the film, which is introduced by teenager Peter, who, in voice-over, says that after his father died — horribly, as it turns out — all he wanted was for his mother to be happy.
She is, more or less, running a restaurant with Peter to help in a small Montana town. Not too far away, Phil and George own a remote but comfortable ranch, nestled into undulating mountains that cast strange shadows during the golden hour. The men employ a bevy of ranch hands, and one day they all head into town for a celebratory dinner at Rose’s restaurant. She and George soon marry, but not until after Phil taunts her son Peter for being weak. (He has a lisp; he makes flowers for the table out of newspapers and books; Phil smells blood, and maybe something more.)
The story unspools slowly from there, set up in chapters that keep heading off in unexpected directions. Phil’s malign presence pushes the narrative along; he’s an enigma to be untangled. He torments Rose, taunting her with his words, his banjo that mocks her piano practice, his all-seeing eyes. (Dunst is terrific in the role, a rabbit trapped in a corner, seemingly melting before our eyes and his.) He won’t shower. He castrates bulls bare-handed. He idolizes a dead mentor named Bronco Henry, who taught him to ride and run a ranch like a man, to make ropes and spot shadows in the hills and protect himself at all costs.
Bronco Henry’s memory, contained in the saddle Phil preserves and polishes in the barn, is the skeleton key to the whole thing. Campion’s directorial hand is full of sleights; just when you think you know someone, they half-turn and reveal some other angle. Phil’s barbarism is partly a self-protection mechanism, and though Campion never submits to the cliche that he actually has a heart of gold — Phil is not a good guy — when he retreats to a secret spot in the woods where he revels in the sensualist, queer side of him he dares not show to his employees, we start to get inside his skin just a little.
It’s thrilling to see Cumberbatch in this role, after years of playing mostly historical intellectuals (Alan Turing, Thomas Edison) and magical superheroes (the MCU’s Doctor Strange) and fantasy creatures (Smaug, the Grinch). His distinctive, almost snakelike features can easily swing from innocent to menacing, and his voice, which is by turns resonant and strained to a breaking point, tells you what kind of a man Phil might be. He finds pathos in what seems almost sociopathic, a bundle of nerves wound so tight that he can’t figure out how to stop and breathe.
It’s when Peter comes to the ranch from boarding school that things get tricky. It’s as if Phil sees his own, younger doppelgänger in Peter — a gangly boy who’s been the man of the house for a long time, who harbors trauma and fey affectations and some kind of hunger to please and maybe something just a bit darker. The most thrilling stretches of The Power of the Dog come in the tentative threads that pass between them, each testing what their relationship to one another is; there’s something reminiscent of Patricia Highsmith in the way those threads get plucked and stretched. Are Phil and Peter uncle and nephew? Bully and victim? Mentor and mentee? Predator and prey? After all, in many cultures, spotting your doppelgänger means you’re seeing your own death on the horizon.
The Power of the Dog — like all of Campion’s work — mixes the sublime and the surprising, art walking steadily toward a wholly unexpected conclusion. There’s a tenderness in how she treats the characters, but no sentimentality. She shot the film in her native New Zealand, yet it evokes the particular emptiness, beauty, and vague unease of the wide open, so familiar from American Westerns.
And each creak of the house or frightened glance from the eyes is a reminder that the spirit that lurks in the walls and the mountains is machismo, perpetuated by the myth of the cowboy, the virile swashbuckler who can’t stand anyone to get too close. Movies certainly bought into that myth for a long time, just about as fervently as Bronco Henry and his protégé. It’s what’s made Rose’s life a living hell, what’s thrown up a wall between George and his brother, what’s messed with Phil’s head. The conclusion of The Power of the Dog is less a happily-ever-after than a safe-for-now. The dog, as it has for millennia, still looms.
The Power of the Dog opened in limited theaters on November 17 and begins streaming on Netflix on December 1.