The New Zealand-born auteur Jane Campion has to be counted among the most literary of all working filmmakers. Of the eight features she has written and directed over the course of her nearly four-decade career, half have been adaptations of books: An Angel at my Table, The Portrait of a Lady, In the Cut, and now The Power of the Dog, based on a long-neglected 1967 novel by the American Western writer Thomas Savage. Two of the eight have been biopics about individual authors. Not all Campion scripts are wordy—the spare, elliptical dialogue in The Power of the Dog is anything but—but a Campion film tends to have a compactness of story and density of observation that makes it unfold like a novel.
Campion’s career also distinguishes itself by her unhurried pace of production. She has taken time in the years between feature films to throw herself into producing the projects of other filmmakers and into creating one of the most original TV shows in recent memory with the two-season New Zealand mystery series Top of the Lake. It’s now been 12 years since the release of her previous movie, Bright Star, an achingly romantic chronicle of the last love affair of the doomed tubercular poet John Keats.
The Power of the Dog and Bright Star are as different in sensibility and storyline as two consecutive films from the same director could be. The plot of the new movie, which premieres this week in limited release and begins streaming on Netflix on Dec. 1, kicks off not with the establishment of a grand passion in the making, but with a pleasant-at-best marriage of convenience between a Montana widow, Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and George, the wealthy son of a ranching family (Dunst’s real-life partner Jesse Plemons). After she moves from the small-town boarding house where she has been working as a cook to the isolated ranch George shares with his eccentric brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), the newlyweds’ tentative connection is threatened by Phil’s open resentment of his brother’s new bride, and his uniquely sinister ability and desire to get under Rose and George’s skin at every possible opportunity. When Rose’s socially awkward teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) arrives at the ranch on summer vacation from boarding school, the tensions that have been building in the grand old house hit a boiling point as the vulnerable Peter gets taken under the wing of the increasingly sadistic Phil.
Between its pitched psychological warfare, its disorientingly vast Western landscapes (with the stunning Otago region of New Zealand standing in for Montana), and an unsettling dissonant score by Jonny Greenwood, The Power of the Dog sometimes feels like Campion’s female-centric reply to Paul Thomas Anderson’s 2007 epic There Will Be Blood. Both are intimate chamber dramas about how money and power corrupt human relationships, set against a backdrop of early 20th-century capitalism. (The Power of the Dog takes place in 1925, but in a place so remote and frontier-like it’s surprising when a piece of modern technology like the automobile makes an appearance.) And both feature a central character—Daniel Day-Lewis’ Daniel Plainview, Cumberbatch’s Phil Burbank—whose arrogantly self-assured demeanor hides a core of bottomless insecurity and, when pushed to the limit, bottomless malevolence.
Phil, we learn in a few tossed-off lines of dialogue, is a brilliant man who once earned a university degree in classical studies, but he chooses to live the life of a frontier cowboy, spending his days castrating bulls and pulling pranks with the ranch hands. Perpetually clad in buffalo-skin chaps, he resists even so minor a concession to civilized life as taking a bath. When his brother asks him to wash up for a dinner party thrown to welcome Rose into the family, he skips the gathering instead. Phil’s fixation on masculine ruggedness is bound up with his mourning for a long-deceased childhood mentor, Bronco Henry, whose old saddle Phil keeps in the barn as a kind of shrine. A couple of maybe too on-the-nose solo scenes drive home the homoerotic nature of Phil’s attachment to Henry. Perhaps out of shame at this forbidden and thwarted desire, Phil makes it his mission to torment and undermine the depressive Rose. When she sits down to practice, haltingly, on the baby grand piano that her puppyishly devoted husband has bought for her, the omnipresent Phil makes sure she hears him in the next room, expertly picking out the same tune on his banjo. Rose begins drinking in secret to ease the stress of her new gilded-cage existence, but nothing that happens on the ranch is a secret to Phil, who appears to be lying in wait for any chance to humiliate, expose, and manipulate the woman he perceives as having invaded his all-male domain.
The Power of the Dog is one of those films that, on first viewing, seems to have a story too thin to support the epic sweep of its setting. But watch it a second time through, and the tightly coiled thriller plot comes into focus, with no detail wasted as the movie hurtles toward a violent, psychically shattering, but narratively satisfying ending. (The running time is just over two hours, but both times I watched the movie, the time seemed to rush by.) Through it all, Campion remains in masterful control of the film’s obscurely menacing mood, and of every aspect of its craft. Ari Wegner’s cinematography shifts between claustrophobic closeups (an open wound on a character’s hand, a fly crawling across a horse’s twitching hide) and almost sickeningly immense vistas, emphasizing the characters’ insignificance against the surrounding landscape. Cumberbatch, a handsome, affable actor we tend to associate with endearing characters (though he has also played a Star Trek villain and, in the Hobbit movies, voiced the dragon Smaug) displays a terrifying new dimension as the damaged and damaging Phil. His physicality transforms completely as he inhabits the bowlegged walk of someone who lives on horseback and the rigid posture of a man entirely powered by repression and bitterness. As the trapped, desperate Rose, Dunst also delivers a career-best performance. The always-wonderful Plemons is given less screen time and less to do than the rest of the cast, but his few intimate scenes with Rose are heartbreakingly tender. And the astonishing Smit-McPhee, whose breakthrough role came at age 13 in a demanding part in the Cormac McCarthy adaptation The Road, goes toe-to-toe with Cumberbatch in a role that calls for both profound sensitivity and iron-willed resolve.
The Power of the Dog takes its title from a Biblical psalm: “Deliver my soul from the sword, my darling from the power of the dog.” When it’s read aloud by a character late in the film, the precise meaning of this verse is enigmatic: Just who is the “darling” of whom in this movie, and whose soul is saved by the sword’s final blow? Campion’s eighth film leaves these questions mysteriously open. The ending is cathartic, tragic, and exhilarating all at once, and leaves you wanting to circle back and start the whole movie over again.