There are two scenes in The Power of the Dog that strike straight at the film’s core.
In the first scene, wealthy cattle rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) cakes himself in mud before diving into the river to bathe himself. It seems counterintuitive, but it’s an embrace of the life he reveres so intensely: dirty, messy, masculine, salt-of-the-earth all-American. It’s what his best friend and idol, the deceased Bronco Henry, would’ve done and taught him to do.
It’s also a deeply-entrenched lie, the kind we tell ourselves when the truth directly opposes everything we believe matters.
Phil revels in his carefully-constructed image and the cruelty it allows him to visit upon others. He casually insults his brother George (Jesse Plemons), mocking his weight and high-society leanings (even though they are both wealthy). When George marries and brings home the sweet and unassuming Rose (Kirsten Dunst), Phil emotionally abuses her into crippling anxiety and a heavy reliance on alcohol. He openly mocks her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) for perceived weakness and femininity, setting fire to his paper flower bouquet when he dines at their restaurant.
On the surface, Phil Burbank is a relentlessly terrible human being with no redeeming qualities, possessing power over the ranch that stifles and suffocates anyone who dares to step out of line. However, writer and director Jane Campion understands that it’s never that simple, and she crafts a film that exquisitely explores the source of a rotten soul and how deep it can spread.
Even though the film is set in vast, mountainous grasslands, The Power of the Dog is most concerned with psychological landscapes. Within that, Campion sets up camp in the land of perception and carves at her characters’ realities, demonstrating how appearances can deceive and punish with vicious impunity. Identity torments the Burbank family, the ones they claim and the ones thrust upon them. Phil’s gaslighting ignites Rose’s descent into paranoid alcoholism, but the kindling is her insecurities about her capabilities as a wealthy man’s wife. George’s concerns about what others think blind him to Rose’s crisis and his own loneliness.
Despite his protestations to the contrary, Phil is just as tortured as his brother and sister-in-law, maybe even more so. That realization crests during that second scene. Alone in the forest, while his ranch hands frolic in the river, Phil pulls out a silk handkerchief and caresses himself with it, much unlike how he haphazardly slapped on mud earlier. That tender, intimate scene, and what that handkerchief actually represents, brings Phil into laser-sharp focus: his repression of sensuality and intelligence, his performance of hypermasculinity and cruelty, his loneliness, and his jealousies are re-framed in a new romantic and sexual context. Campion positions Phil in a newly vulnerable frame of reference as he bathes afterward, challenging us to feel for the usually dirt-caked monster who menacingly peered at Rose while whistling the tune she couldn’t play on the piano.
At the same time, Peter encounters him and bears witness to Phil’s cleansing, with newly-discovered context into his past. Phil is, of course, furious at first, but he latches onto the newfound connection. He takes Peter under his wing and practically dotes on him, to Rose’s increasing horror. The irony is that Phil, once a master of misdirection, can’t recognize it until it’s too late.
Campion’s deliberate and affecting direction makes the characters’ miseries ache through the screen. The film’s pacing is deceptively measured, giving off the initial impression that there isn’t much to the plot or that she is too preoccupied with the truly stunning New Zealand vistas that form her imagination of the 1920s Wild West. It is all part of Campion’s atmosphere, with its simmering tension and poisonous beauty. Jonny Greenwood’s stunning, haunting score enhances the paranoia and mistrust at the core of every interaction. At the same time, cinematographer Ari Weiner’s shadowy compositions help Campion achieve a brutally honest sculpture of psychological crisis.
As the deeply repressed Phil, Benedict Cumberbatch delivers one of his best performances to date. He brings seething rage and deeply-buried anguish to his scenes, whether he’s barking insults at George, harassing Rose, or quietly connecting with Peter. Cumberbatch’s performance is richly interior but fully receivable, finding unexpected moments to convey Phil’s complex, mottled web of emotions. Kirsten Dunst is devastating, presenting Rose’s emotional implosion in incredibly vivid detail. Watching her confidence crumble as George pressures her to play the piano is one of the year’s most heartbreaking scenes. The whole ensemble is excellent, but Cumberbatch and Dunst, in their ways, push Campion’s already powerful script to even greater heights.
The Power of the Dog contemplates several themes across its runtime, and the fact that it can do so with such clear-eyed vision and creative process is a testament to Campion’s directorial excellence. The experience she creates and her actors perform is immersive, challenging, and memorable. Campion may argue that appearances can deceive, but this is one you can count on.