‘The Power of the Dog’ Review: Wild Hearts on a Closed Frontier

A great American story and a dazzling evisceration of one of the country’s foundational myths, Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” centers on Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), a swaggering man’s man. For decades, Phil has been raising cattle on his family’s Montana ranch, a parched expanse ringed by jagged mountains. As hard and isolate, open and defended as the land, Phil has been playing cowboy his entire adult life: He rarely bathes, picks a banjo and castrates bull calves using a blade he then holds in his teeth so he can finish the merciless procedure with his bare hands.

Campion’s touch is more subtle in “The Power of the Dog” although her knife work is similarly swift, sure, inexorable and unforgiving. She’s a fearless director who has never worried about making her audience squirm, and I suspect she enjoyed shooting that castration scene both for its raw, visceral imagery and its ferociously witty resonance. You feel bad for the poor beast (it scrambles away), but it’s the other animal that Campion wants you to see, the one seething with rage and flexing his mastery under the admiring gaze of other men.

The story takes place in 1925, more than three decades after the Census Bureau declared the frontier closed and the same year that Buster Keaton starred in the comedy “Go West.” Time seems to have come to a standstill for Phil, though the Burbank family owns one of the area’s few cars. For a quarter century, he and his brother, George (Jesse Plemons), have kept the cowboy ethos alive at the ranch their parents gave them. They break horses and corral cattle in a world of rough men, but at night, Phil and George retreat to their large, sepulchral Eastern-style house with its carpets, filled bookcases, waiting chess board and menagerie of animal heads lining the dark, wood-paneled walls.

A bold visual stylist, Campion introduces this world and its people with sweep and precision, with soaring eagle-eye aerial shots and her characteristic attention to voluptuary detail (and with New Zealand doubling for an unspoiled Montana). She fluently sets the western milieu, with its swirling dust and thundering cattle, and catches the boisterous camaraderie of the ranch hands, the playfulness of their jostling with its easy, unselfconscious physicality and intimacy. In one breathtaking long shot, Phil and a handful of other men walk along a road in near-perfect synchrony, their bodies stretched across the screen in an unbroken line.

Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst.Credit…Kirsty Griffin/Netflix

The story turns on what happens when George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widow with a teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee, who evokes the young Anthony Perkins of “Psycho”). Phil sees Rose as an opportunist and writes a letter of complaint to his parents, whom the brothers, more comically than fondly, refer to as the Old Lady and Old Gent (Frances Conroy and Peter Carroll). It’s a childish move, but in keeping with the infantilism that still shapes the brothers’ uneasy relationship and their awkwardness with outsiders, particularly women. Before Rose, the only other women at the ranch are a bosomy older cook and a girlish helper, both conveniently sexless.

When Rose first enters the Burbank house, Campion meaningfully pictures her in its gloom, the character’s pale face flickering like a weak light. “The Power of the Dog” is a story of the Intermountain West, a sun-blasted realm of cowboys and wide-open spaces, desolation and self-reliance. With the arrival of Rose and Peter, the story also becomes something of a female Gothic, one of those eerie stories about women in suffocating domestic spaces haunted by ghosts (literal and otherwise) and a-swirl with repressed desire. In “Jane Eyre,” the heroine enters a home with a madwoman whose husband has locked her in the attic; Rose is soon troubled by other malevolent forces.

“The Power of the Dog” is based on a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, a closeted gay man whose critically acclaimed fiction drew on his formative years living and working on a Montana ranch. The book is a novel of the West, and in an afterword written for a reprint, Annie Proulx observes that “something aching and lonely and terrible of the west is caught forever” in Savage’s pages. The book predates by decades Proulx’s tragic love story “Brokeback Mountain,” about two hired hands, Jack and Ennis, who discover each other one summer in 1963 while herding sheep. They have sex and fall in love while believing themselves “invisible.”

Campion, who wrote the screenplay for “The Power of the Dog,” has pared the story down to its essentials, initially building on a series of oppositions, some starkly visible, others more covert. Phil is tall, rangy and dresses like a cowboy, complete with soiled hat and chaps. George is squatter, rounder, and given to wearing suits even on horseback. Phil is a great talker, when he chooses, and has a razor-sharp tongue, with many of his most lacerating comments directed at his brother. For his part, George tends toward quiet, using as few words as possible, including when he’s being goaded by Phil, who derisively calls him Fatso. Phil is alpha to George’s beta. Phil is also unspeakably cruel.

At first glance, the brothers seem to incarnate the classic western divide between wilderness and civilization, a split that films have long represented as a series of endless white-and-black hat struggles. In movie after movie, for decade after decade, that fight neatly and inexorably divided men into warring camps: cowboys versus Indians, ranchers versus tenderfoots, outlaws versus lawmen, West versus East. As has often been the case, including in old Hollywood, these divisions are more complex than they seem and so are Phil and George, whose lifelong dynamic is disrupted by Rose and Peter, a spidery, bookish boy underestimated by everyone.

Five Movies to Watch This Winter

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1. “The Power of the Dog”: Benedict Cumberbatch is earning high praise for his performance in Jane Campion’s new psychodrama. Here’s what it took for the actor to become a seething alpha-male cowboy.

2. “Don’t Look Up” : Meryl Streep plays a self-centered scoundrel in Adam McKay’s apocalyptic satire.  She turned to the “Real Housewives” franchise for inspiration.

3. “King Richard”: Aunjanue Ellis, who plays Venus and Serena Williams’s mother in the biopic, shares how she turned the supporting role into a talker.

4. “Tick, Tick … Boom!”: Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut is an adaptation of a show by Jonathan Larson, creator of “Rent.” This guide can help you unpack its many layers.

5. “The Tragedy of Macbeth”: Several upcoming movies are in black and white, including Joel Coen’s new spin on Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”

Rose takes Phil’s place, literally in the case of the brothers’ sleeping arrangements: George moves out of the bedroom he’s shared with his brother, sleeping side by side on separate narrow beds in the same small space. The brothers share a hotel room early in the story, which seems a matter of convenience. But it’s a shock when you first see their beds at home and the moment you do, the significance of these terribly sad twin beds, which are better suited for children, sweeps over you like a tidal wave. It alters the landscape, changing everything you think you know about the brothers and their strange interdependence, with its forlorn hostility.

Phil is the primary channel for the story’s malevolence, which Cumberbatch stokes with virtuosic control. Savage writes of Phil: “he had loathed the world, should it loathe him first.” In an ever-tightening circle of hard looks and desperate gestures and moves, Campion and her actors reveal the depths of Phil’s loathing as well as the toll such self-protective hatred takes. You see the meanness — how it deforms Phil’s face, how it batters Rose’s — but also tenderness. Because while Rose hardens Phil’s shell, Peter chips away at it, providing glimpses of the other part of Phil that this man jealously guards, heartbreakingly alone with memories of a dead cowboy he still loves.

“The Power of the Dog” builds tremendous force, gaining its momentum through the harmonious discord of its performances, the nervous rhythms of Jonny Greenwood’s score and the grandeur of its visuals. Here, in Campion’s sensual realm every ray of light and nubby texture adds to the cascading meaning: the down on a man’s arm, the backlighted mane of a horse, the gleam of running water, a hand on a shoulder. It’s easy to sum up the movie: it is at once a revisionist western, a mystery (pay attention to the gloves!), an exploration of masculinity and femininity, a lament for the limits the world puts on us and those we shoulder until we can no longer bear them. And while it is a tragedy, it is also a liberation story, including for a genre again renewed by a brilliant, unfettered director.

The Power of the Dog
Rated R for cattle castration, language and violence. Running time: 2 hours 6 minutes. Watch on Netflix and in theaters.

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