Courtesy Netflix

The 12-year period between Jane Campion’s last feature—her 2009 masterpiece Bright Star (a staggering achievement that itself should have resulted in the sky opening and money raining down upon the New Zealand-born, Australia-and-London-based writer-director)—and her latest, a searing adaptation of Thomas Savage’s eponymous 1967 novel, is one of the great travesties of contemporary cinema. In between these theatrical features, she cowrote and codirected two seasons of Top of the Lake; in spite of the limited television series’s myriad virtues, it felt like a consolation prize for those of us who had been desperate for more of Campion’s cinematic mastery. 

But more we’ve finally gotten. And, thankfully, The Power of the Dog—among the year’s best films, if not its very best—has been given a theatrical run before premiering on Netflix in December. I mention this only because it’s crucial that the film be seen on a big screen, in the utmost dark and surrounded by strangers, all of whom have entered into agreement that this brief period of time belongs to Campion, and we are but humble witnesses to her alchemy.  She’s compromised nothing in partnering with the streaming behemoth, having made a film that embraces the majesty of cinema and, more importantly, moviegoing, from its provocative cast to the striking cinematography (done by Ari Wegner, whose recent credits include Zola, Lady Macbeth, and several episodes of The Girlfriend Experience) to Jonny Greenwood’s likewise delicate and menacing score, all of which become larger than life in the moving image’s hallowed halls. 

The Power of the Dog
4/4 stars
Dir. Jane Campion, 126 min. Coming to Netflix 12/1, now playing at Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport, $11, and in other select theaters.

Brothers Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons, respectively) are well-to-do cattle ranchers in 1925 Montana. The beginning of the film finds Phil foxily celebrating the quarter of a century they’ve spent working together on their immense ranch. Despite his churlish behavior and a predilection for calling his brother “Fatso,” Phil seems the more invested one in their unusually close relationship. George, on the other hand, emanates dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs, reluctant to dwell on the past as Phil does. When Phil regales their crew with tales of Bronco Henry—the brothers’ former mentor, a long-dead, near-mythical Western eidolon who comes to haunt the story as a specter of desolation and repression—George seems not to recall those alleged halcyon days. Plemons’s understated, almost blasé, propriety is a perfect foil for Cumberbatch’s arrogant blustering, the strain in their relationship evident via the carefully constructed dynamic between the actors. The tension lingers like the ominous twangs of Greenwood’s soundtrack.

The brothers herd their cattle to a nearby town, where they and their crew stay at an inn owned by the widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst), who operates it with her teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). George takes a liking to Rose, and Phil watches these developments unfold with dismay after having harassed her son for serving the ranchers with a white cloth draped over his arm. Tall, gangly, and awkward, Peter is clearly targeted for characteristics that suggest sensitivity, weakness, and (though never explicitly articulated) queerness. 

Smit-McPhee’s performance is a Campionesque rendering if there ever was one; this auspicious young actor embodies the idea of queerness, not as it pertains to the character’s undisclosed sexuality, but to an overall state of being set apart, inherently at odds with the world around you. Peter is another figure in a pantheon of characters—including the titular Sweetie from Campion’s debut feature (1989); Holly Hunter’s Ada from The Piano (1993); and Meg Ryan’s Frannie from the woefully underrated In the Cut (2003)—who seem to be as enigmatic to Campion as they are to us. 

George and Rose marry, and she and Peter move to the cowboy brothers’ large, foreboding house, set against a mountainous panorama (though it was filmed in New Zealand, Campion’s facility with the setting obscures any doubts surrounding the geographic anachronism). Peter goes off to school, while Rose struggles to adjust not only to her new home, but to her new lot in life. She’s uncomfortable being waited on by the house staff and being expected to perform on the piano for the visiting governor (who, when he shows up, is played by Keith Carradine). Meanwhile Phil wages a sly psychological war on Rose, withholding any sort of familial affection and looming near her, over her, in the dark, country house. She’s driven to drink by his malevolent behavior, taking to bed in fits of despair.

Peter returns home and experiences the same dissonance as a continued object of disdain for Phil and the ranch hands. But he responds to it differently than his mother and gains leverage over Phil after happening upon his secret hideaway in the woods. It feels almost reductive to discuss the discovery in question, magazines of half-nude men exercising, as well as a revelation to which only the audience is privy, a scene of Phil pleasuring himself with a seemingly beloved, well-worn handkerchief (which he pulls directly from his pants), embroidered with the initials “BH.’” Bronco Henry. An inferable but no less provocative development, the psychosexual always flirts with the nebulousness of being in Campion’s films. 

This exhibition sets into motion a chain of events that, for lack of a more suitable phrase, will keep viewers on the edge of their seats. These happenings have inspired critics to invoke such phrases as “revisionist Western” and “toxic masculinity” when describing The Power of the Dog; the qualifiers may be applicable to this oft-inscrutable masterpiece, but they feel unsuitable nonetheless. The film seems, rather, like a menagerie of oblique character studies, each of the adult leads an animal in his or her own cage. For all his salt-of-the-earth machismo, Phil actually has more in common with Peter than he lets on, having been classically educated and thus apparently quite intelligent. Peter aspires to be a doctor like his late father, but, unlike Phil, he opts for the rigor of study to the hardscrabbles of manual labor. Both may or may not share a certain inborn quality that at the time and in that place was decidedly taboo. 

As Rose, Dunst exhibits the subtle vulnerability that accounts for her superb talent and the heretofore underappreciation of it. The film’s focus is ostensibly on its male characters, but, as in keeping with Campion’s films, the central female figure emerges as an equally complicated figure, if not more so. Smit-McPhee likewise balances conflicting postures, oscillating gracefully between shy, put-upon misfit and baleful protector of his remaining parent’s sanity. It helps that Smit-McPhee’s unusual beauty complements this aim, though his striking physical presence never overpowers the delicate nuance.

Much is being made of Cumberbatch’s performance, but it’s my opinion that he’s the weakest of the four leads (Plemons is excellent as always, disappearing into the role as needed; his on-screen chemistry with real-life partner Dunst is further additive). Adhering to Campion’s typical demand for method acting from her performers, Cumberbatch spent much time in the American west and even learned to castrate a bull, lending believability to the film’s most gruesome (but thankfully simulated) scene. He’s too much at times, but perhaps that’s intentional—he’s set apart from the other actors, and this enhances the effectiveness of their subtlety as well as his strangeness. Cumberbatch plays Phil aware of what Phil isn’t aware of himself: that there are others who know, or at least suspect, who he truly is.

The film’s title hints at an imperceptible shape in the craggy Montana hillscape, a mystery obscured by the perilous terrain. Campion’s use of setting here is evocative of those great masters John Ford and Anthony Mann. Shots of Phil and Peter in a barn, backlit against the clear-blue sky and light-green mountains, recall a famous shot from Ford’s The Searchers, while Campion’s use of landscape as a psychological overbear evokes Mann’s best Westerns (The Furies, Bend of the River, The Far Country). A film’s score is often considered in such complementary terms, and Greenwood’s prickly rejoinder suggests a voyeur-like presence. This is the second soundtrack he’s composed this year, after Pablo Larraín’s Spencer. He’s fast becoming his generation’s Philip Glass, his portentous accompaniments an apt barometer of the respective auteur’s impulses. 

The Power of the Dog is already being tapped for the upcoming awards season, with some predicting nominations for Campion and the lead cast members. Normally I don’t care about the likelihood of a director potentially to win awards, but I can’t help but to be excited by this prospect for Campion and her long-awaited masterpiece, not least because it might mean that she’s able to direct yet more features. Driven to make this film adaptation of it after reading Savage’s novel (a feat previously considered by none other than Paul Newman), she’s once again burrowed into that dark crevice amid sinisterness and beauty, darkness and light. The mystifying interiors of her finely drawn characters coalesce elegantly with the idiosyncrasies of her aesthetic vision, but often to disquieting effect. Out of this comes yet another sublime ode to the intricacies of humanity, after which there’ll hopefully be others to come.