Not much is more mysterious than that of the unseen, the truth or lies that possibly hide in plain sight, uncontrollable even by the most domineering hands. Phil Burbank, a 1920s rancher, is a born rider of horses, a skilled leader of men, and assuredly someone who likes to assert his will on others. Frankly, he’s a sadist, a master of psychological abuse and, as played by a monstrous, mesmerizing Benedict Cumberbatch, he’s one of the scariest characters you may encounter in a movie this year. He revels in his oppressive control over his land and its various creatures. He especially prides himself on having the gift of sight, an ability to see things that others cannot, like the strange, elusive vision cast by shadows in the hills near his Montana ranch. “There is something there, right?” one of his men asks. “Not if you can’t see it, there ain’t,” Phil replies.
The mystery of the seen and unseen sits at the heart of The Power of the Dog, Jane Campion’s insidiously gripping adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same title. Like that book, it’s built upon several carefully concealed surprises, less big plot reveals than ingenious tricks of perception. There is so much to see in this movie, the sunrise cattle drives set against somber gray skies and craggy landscapes of Ari Wegner’s majestic cinematography. But there is also a great deal hidden in plain sight, including that these Montana landscapes were actually filmed in Campion’s native New Zealand, which feels curiously fitting in a movie about the deceptive nature of appearances.
At first glance, Phil and his brother, George (Jesse Plemons), are a model of good siblings, running their ranch in the absence of their city-dwelling parents (Frances Conroy and Peter Carroll). Their differences are pronounced and, for the most part, complementary. In a movie where dogs are both essential workers and notable symbols, Phil is clearly an alpha: Like his revered mentor, Bronco Henry, whose memory he clings to like some old charm, he’s a man of the earth, forever dirty and/or bloody, washing only occasionally in a nearby river. George, whom Phil continually calls “fatso,” is his gentlemanly opposite, always freshly bathed, neatly dressed and polite. The two share a no-nonsense sibling intimacy, but the air between them is charged with tension, the unspoken sense that even the slightest jolt might cause their fragile dynamic to collapse. That jolt arrives when the brothers and their men stop at an inn and restaurant run by a widow named Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) and are waited on by her soft-spoken son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). In a chain of events that unfold with exquisitely modulated tension, Phil takes one look at the intricately cut paper-flower decorations on the dinner table — and at the trim, elegant-mannered young man who designed them — and unleashes a string of insults. The withering attack on her son causes Rose to burst into tears, which George is there to wipe away. Swiftly but sincerely, his consolation becomes something more, and the two are soon married — a decision that infuriates Phil, in part because he knows he has only himself to blame.
Striping down her source material, Campion splinters the narrative with chapter breaks that quicken rather than segment its gathering momentum. The story hits its stride when Peter heads off to college to study medicine and Rose moves onto the brothers’ ranch, where George does what he can to make her feel at home and Phil does the complete opposite. Campion knows a thing or two about new brides in hostile surroundings, and admirers of her great 1993 film The Piano may smile when George thoughtfully buys Rose a baby grand as a move-in present. But Rose’s love of the piano is snuffed out, along with her spirit, as Phil’s quietly domineering presence spreads through the house like a toxic vapor, filling its dim, cavernous spaces until they feel as vast and unsettled as the surrounding prairies. And Campion allows so many of her most important scenes to unfold with exquisite agony, like when Phil disrupts Rose’s futile attempts to play “Radetzky Match” on her piano by mimicking over top of her on his banjo. In one sense, Campion turns the conventions of her presumed genre inside out. The Power of the Dog is a psychological thriller in the guise of a western, and possibly a love story in the guise of a psychological thriller. Everything about it, from the spare, enveloping details of Grant Major’s production design to the nerve-shredding dissonances of Jonny Greenwood’s score, directs our focus inward.
Its most striking landscapes may be the faces of its four extraordinary actors. The camera lingers on the mix of caution and reserve at play in Smit-McPhee’s gaunt, delicate features, which can hide quite a lot, and also the mix of decency and helplessness in Plemons’ softer face, which here hides almost nothing. Dunst, meanwhile, twists her expressions into a mask of pain and desolation as Rose shrinks under the weight of Phil’s serial humiliations and descends into alcoholism. And then there’s Cumberbatch, as magnetic in wide shot of him on horseback as he is in a glowering closeup. The rugged frontiersman is not the first role in which you might cast an actor known for his clean-shaven elegance and almost schoolmaster-like poise, but Cumberbatch, in a performance that merges steely intelligence and fearless physicality, makes you wonder why no one thought of it sooner. And yet he draws as much on his own screen history as he seems to depart from it. You get a sense of this when Phil makes an early speech likening himself and his brother to Romulus and Remus; he has a much more scholarly past than his fellow men, yet spurs and coarse habits have turned him into something else, which is disquieting in itself. His loathing of Rose and Peter seems to spring from something deeper and more vindictive than your standard roughneck ignorance.
But that vindictiveness seems to retreat — or is it deepening? — when Peter returns from school to visit his mother and, against all odds, begins to forge an odd bond with his former tormenter. Is Phil taking the young man under his wing out of a change of heart or simply keeping his enemy close? The ambiguity in his motives is fascinating; for the first time, he seems to have encountered someone whose gaze might be as penetrating as his own. Peter is no longer cutting paper flowers; he’s dissecting small animals for his studies, with the clinical dispassion that his wanted profession demands. The precision of his movements might remind you of Phil’s own surgical-like dexterity as he braids together a rope — a task that requires strength and stamina but also delicacy and coordination. It’s also a fine visual metaphor for the way the strands of this story are pulled tautly, relentlessly together. It’s that near-tactile attention to detail that makes Campion’s signature so distinct, especially in a genre more inclined to be sweeping. She has always been particularly sensitive to probing her female characters’ complex inner worlds, giving vivid expression to desires they are often forced to subsume or repress. It comes as little surprise that her insight into the gnarled codes and contradictions of American masculinity are no less piercingly astute.
The Power of the Dog is Campion’s first feature in eleven years, and it marks a triumphant return to the form, a nervy gamble that becomes a reassertion of her mastery. This stretch of Montana may be new geographical territory for her, but nothing about its mysteries and undercurrents feels alien to a filmmaker who has always been most at home out in the open. Campion handles the story with puzzle-box precision, taking what initially seems like a narrative that’s too schematic and giving it further complexity as she uncorks one gripping set piece after another. But the power of this movie goes beyond its clockwork plotting and startling finale. It lingers in those tense moments when Phil, so proud of his foresight and yet so blind to human consequences, catches a too-late glimpse of what lies on the horizon. More than once, Campion frames him through a barn doorway or a window, trapping him against a landscape that suddenly looks as small, as finite, as he does. He’s no longer terrifying; he’s terrified. Capturing the potent mysteries of the seen and unseen, The Power of the Dog ingeniously weaponizes the trick of perception for piercingly sharp insight and enveloping psychological warfare.
The Power of the Dog is playing in Select Theaters and will be available to stream on Netflix on December 1