It’s a moment both deeply funny and deeply unnerving when, about halfway through Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” the unshakeable mask of glowering menace being adopted by Benedict Cumberbatch’s bully, Phil, suddenly cracks during an unexpected detente with a most unlikely foe. Foe may or may not be the right word to describe Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Peter at this point; you can expect to have several potential descriptors for him upon film’s end, unable to firmly settle on one. But it nonetheless feels like a strategic move when the wiry youngster looks to the mysterious mountains shimmering in the distance, replicating Phil’s archetypically profound gaze the likes of which an entire history of Western film has built itself up from...and suggests, curtly and with disarming candor, what he sees that only Phil has heretofore been able to: A dog, with its jaws wide open.
That’s not a bad way to describe the magnificent tensions of “The Power of the Dog,” come to think of it. Opening upon grassland vistas stretching to infinity and the thunderous strings of Jonny Greenwood’s score, something sinister looms all throughout the narrative, to the point where we’re just biding our time until this movie’s maw snaps shut. Whether it happens with bloodshed or worse remains to be seen, but surely – surely – it will be initiated by Phil, the cowpoke with the lead-weighted drawl who’s well-versed in the ways of cruelty. He’s an incriminating presence, suppressing something that feels like vengeful rage when he isn’t calling his brother “fatso” (this is Jesse Plemons’s George, Phil’s chivalrous antithesis) or mercilessly teasing the widow George has just married, Rose (a marvelous Kirsten Dunst).
Basic movie logic leads us to assume Phil has a violent role to play. Maybe a rehabilitative one. But Campion, whose interests reside in the interpersonal muck between gender differences and social roles, prefers to toy around with logic—especially when it’s of the emotional kind. What that’s resulted in here is a momentous return to filmmaking for the New Zealand-born director, a tour-de-force Western of mysterious intentions and outright psychological warfare unfolding in dazzlingly dramatic rhythms beckoning the audience into a mode of constant recalculation, often at the behest of a sole line reading. Take care to observe how the never-been-better Cumberbatch curls his elastic scowl, and when. In this painterly portrait of power struggles unfolding in a time and place where all you need to hear is the clink-clink of spurs to understand who has the communal advantage, the upper hand is constantly being exchanged. That’s as true for the characters as it is for us and Campion.
Hollywood may have undergone a metamorphosis in the dozen years since her last effort, “Bright Star,” but Campion has kept her finger on the pulse of a storytelling landscape where reassessment of one of its oldest collections of tropes and ideological presumptions has been underway. “The Power of the Dog” creates misdirection with its posses of raucous ranch hands and sweeping landscapes, elements as familiar as they are strikingly captured by cinematographer Ari Wegner, who frames two-story structures as if they were skyscrapers and envisions rippling herds of cattle as fleshy currents. Her work lends an air of lurid mysticism collapsing the space between open-spaces liberation and emotional isolation.
It’s in that space that Phil asserts hypermasculine authority, burning Peter’s handmade flowers to ignite a cigarette before drowning them into a pulp in one of the film’s many methodically directed sequences. Look closely and you might notice the slightest note of sensitive curiosity behind his brooding eyes. Could we have imagined it? Maybe. But the same book that gives “The Power of the Dog” its title asserts devils were once angels, and indeed this is a movie where the tendrils of ambiguous pasts continue to wrap around the present. Campion derives immensely captivating power from ensnaring us in a sensation of constant self-questioning, and so do her collaborators; Greenwood’s score, for instance, is an inquisitive cousin to the apocalyptic compositions he wrote for Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” in the way melodies react to each other, often in fidgety scrabbles for dominance.
Characters don’t grow so much as they reveal themselves here, steadily and tightly intertwining like the laces of stripped leather Phil uses to create his ropes. It’s a quality of Campion’s sterling labyrinth of a screenplay (adapted from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel) which gives “The Power of the Dog” the prickliness of a slow-burn thriller even as it never loosens the grip on its character-study reins. By the time Peter fully enters the story, Campion has placed secretive import on certain totems and places, anchoring her medley of rhythmic perspective shifts in repression of true selves and the roots of abhorrent behavior.
How these ideas work in concert with each other is one of the film’s many gifts as its two hours sprint swiftly by, even while drawing us further into the three-pronged relationship of Peter, Phil and Rose that comes to define an endlessly unpredictable second hour. The finale – surprising, fiendish and beguiling in where it leaves our tangle of sympathies – will leave you feeling equal parts satisfied and uncertain. If that’s a difficult contradiction to wrestle with, well, most everything in “The Power of the Dog” is.
"The Power of the Dog" is rated R for brief sexual content/full nudity. It's now on Netflix and in some theaters.
Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee
Directed by Jane Campion
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