New Zealand’s Jane Campion has been making world-class films for over 30 years.
Although a decade has passed since her last full-length feature, The Power of the Dog marks a triumphant return and as potent a vision as she’s ever helmed.
Based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, the story centres on Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), a cowboy of grit and vitriol who operates a successful Montana ranch in 1925 with genial brother George (Jesse Plemons).
Phil, content with playing banjo and castrating bulls barehanded, has his world uprooted when George announces that he’s married Rose (Kristen Dunst), the widowed owner of a nearby Inn. Making matters more inflamed is the presence of her gawky son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), whose delicate nature draws harassment from all the film’s cowhands. Seemingly soft, he’s much tougher than he looks.
However, it’s Cumberbatch’s imposing hostility that prevails, especially towards Rose and Peter (who by now have moved onto the Burbank ranch). The ensuing psychological barrage isn’t subtle or subdued. Rather, it’s unremittingly savage and complex, and not unlike Daniel Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview from 2007’s There Will Be Blood (both films memorably scored by Jonny Greenwood).
Guided by Campion’s artful direction, and arresting photography of New Zealand’s South Island doubling as Montana, The Power of the Dog presents a lived-in-world with a third act that stays true to life’s unpredictability. When Phil curiously changes his anger one day and begins taking Peter under his wing, soon outward appearances wrestle with long-buried repressions.
It’s a rare movie that thankfully sidesteps any big dramatic set-pieces. Instead, it vividly elicits deep characterizations, creeping curiosity, and lasting scratches unfelt until after the credits roll.