There is a scene in Jane Campion’s latest, the exemplary neo-Western The Power of the Dog, when Benedict Cumberbatch’s hard, unyielding, mostly unsympathetic cowboy Phil Burbank decides to destroy something beautiful. The year is 1925, the place is Montana. He is at a restaurant, a place with a piano and tablecloths and salad, and he can’t stand it. There is a glass vase holding a bouquet of paper flowers on the table, meticulous blooms made of slivers and slices of newspaper assembled into stems and petals and stamens, and Phil considers them with a critical eye. He marvels at the detail and work required to craft them, and then he sets them on fire to light his cigarette. He does it because he can.
Campion’s lens holds on the blazing bloom as it disintegrates into ash, and as so much effort turns into nothing, and as Phil drops what remains of the flower into his glass of water. Fire incinerating the flower first, and then water to drown it. There is no acquiescence for a man like Phil, no mercy, and no quarter, and The Power of the Dog is a film dictated—at first—by the intensity and virility of Cumberbatch’s performance. Campion’s filmography is dotted with these kinds of figures, these representations of toxic masculinity who eventually reveal themselves as something else and something more, and her adaptation of the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage maintains that interest. Here is a man so devoted to being a man that he’s forgotten how to be a human being, and he would be pitiable if he weren’t so contemptible.
The Power of the Dog (which would make an excellent double feature with Kelly Reichardt’s First Cow, another genre experiment interested in exploring the impossibility of sensitivity in the Old West) follows Phil and his brother George (Jesse Plemons), opposites who run a profitable ranch together. Phil is rugged, rough, all swagger and dirt. He refuses to bathe inside, he’s adored by the cowhands for his toughness and his authority, and he’s nearly universally awful toward George, whom he primarily calls “Fatso.” George, in turn, has closed himself off from his brother. Whenever Phil launches into a story about their childhood, or another memory of how they were taught ranching by his mentor Bronco Henry, George offers a tight-lipped smile and little else. “You act like it pains you to hitch two words together,” Phil complains about George, but whatever loyalty and familiarity he expects from his brother fell away long ago because of Phil’s own actions. The brothers are masters together of this ranch and prisoners of it, too, and all their wealth and prosperity has not brought them anything close to happiness.
That changes after that flower-burning dinner scene, which takes place at a restaurant run by widow Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) and her teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee, returning to Westerns after Slow West). When George comforts Rose after Phil’s homophobic mocking of Peter, a connection is forged that cinematographer Ari Wegner (on an incredible recent run with In Fabric, True History of the Kelly Gang, and Zola) conveys through compositions that suggest an emotional bridge built toward each other. The camera pushes forward on George as he sits alone at a dinner table, listening to Rose cry, inching closer and closer toward him and his conflicted face until he finally gets up; the bravery he summons to put his hand on her arm is clear. Later on, when he visits Rose at the restaurant, Wegner captures him sitting in the kitchen, alone again—until we hear Rose’s chopping and assembling off screen. She’s let him into this intimate space, and when he goes out with salad plates to serve her guests, she watches him through a small glass plane in the door connecting the two rooms. A solitary place transformed into one of partnership, and a perspective shift that makes plain two people reaching and hoping. (The amount of warmth and consideration exuded by Plemons and Dunst, who are married in real life, is almost too much to take in; a scene where a joyous Rose teaches an overwhelmed George how to dance in a wide-open field is precious and perfect.)
So George and Rose get married, with Rose and Peter moving onto the ranch—and becoming the subjects of Phil’s emotional abuse as he calls Rose a “cheap schemer” and Peter “Little Lord Fauntleroy” (and various other slurs). The Power of the Dog is divided into chapters, and Chapters II through V track the myriad tensions that grow between these characters as Phil lives in the past, Rose and George try to move into the future, and Peter hovers somewhere in between. What does a marriage look like between two people who care for each other, and who are committed to a life together, but who barely know each other? How does a sibling relationship change when one person wants to step into their own life, and the other refuses to let go? What kind of male authority figures does a boy on the precipice of manhood turn toward?
The land is grand, sprawling, and endless, and the people within it so miniscule. Wegner both asks for us to marvel at the majesty of this much open space with extremely wide shots of the mountain ranges, the fields, and the sky, and to judge the people here through extremely tight closeup reaction shots from characters eavesdropping on each other or spying on each other. Secrets float through the air like so much dust or drip like a gush of blood upon a stalk of yellow wheat, becoming more entrenched with the passage of time. Campion has a sense of textures and textiles, and how we imprint our memories upon these items—the body-smoothed leather of Bronco Henry’s saddle, the soft inside of a pair of gloves prepared by Indigenous trader Edward Nappo (Adam Beach), the pebbling of a hand-woven rope—and they take on a certain eroticism as the ranch’s isolation becomes more acute. “I want to say how nice it is not to be alone,” George says to Rose, and The Power of the Dog uses that statement as a guiding compass. Loneliness is as corrosive as acid, and as deadly as an infection. When it eats through you, who is left behind? The Power of the Dog offers an answer that is simultaneously thrillingly satisfying and unshakably discomfiting, and it may very well be the best film of the year.
(Note: There are various scenes in this film that include violence against animals, including beating a horse, castrating a bull, killing rabbits, and performing an autopsy on one.)
The Power of the Dog is streaming on Netflix as of December 1, 2021.
Image sources (in order of posting): Netflix Media Center, Netflix Media Center