The Power of the Dog draws out the instability of the American West’s handed-down myths

Benedict Cumberbatch stars as a cruel Montana rancher trying to assert power over his family in Jane Campion’s excellent adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel.

17 November 2021

By Nicolas Rapold

Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank in The Power of the Dog (2021)Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank in The Power of the Dog (2021) © Courtesy of Netflix
Sight and Sound

The Power of the Dog is in UK cinemas from November 19 and will be available to stream on Netflix from December 1. 

“They didn’t know who the hell they were any more, the young fellows – cowhands or moving picture people.” So complains Montana rancher Phil Burbank in Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel The Power of the Dog, set in 1925. By that point, a kid might model himself after a movie character more than any cowboy in living memory. (“A fellow name of W.S. Hart had got to be sort of their God,” Savage writes of the silent-screen star.)

These lines aren’t in Jane Campion’s pulse-thrumming adaptation, but the concerns over masculinity and wearing the trousers (or the chaps) definitely are. “What kind of man would I be, if I did not help my mother?” intones the opening voiceover, which, like much else in the movie, passes by our defences under a familiar guise only to settle deep into our bones.

The Power of the Dog presents as a ranch family feud in the making, not an uncommon set-up in the American western (see The Big Country, 1958). But it’s all in the way Campion moves us through the psychodrama, coiling its grip tighter ever so gradually. Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) rides herd over a thriving cattle ranch with his stolid brother George (Jesse Plemons), sharing the well-appointed lodge-like house left behind by their city-bound parents.

When George takes a liking to a widow, Rose (Kirsten Dunst, played with aching brittleness), who runs a small hotel, Phil feels their tight-knit fraternity threatened. He directs his cruel ire toward Rose and the boy he dubs “Miss Nancy”: her willowy, bookish son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee, winning in his ungainly awkwardness and resembling a young Martin Landau).

George’s bearish kindness toward Rose, no doubt the first woman he’s ever loved, much less courted, leaves a warm glow. But though they marry and she moves in with the brothers, domestic bliss is elbowed aside by Phil’s alpha-dog campaign of torment. Under their valley’s big-sky brightness – so bracingly rendered by cinematographer Ari Wegner – there’s no escape for Rose (who’s first introduced obliquely, mopping).

Much of Jane Campion’s work (The Piano, 1993; the thankfully rediscovered In the Cut, 2003) has opened a Pandora’s box of sexual desire in search of shape and outlet, but The Power of the Dog at first seems set on diminishing true selves. A shamefaced Rose dives into depressive drinking – a tad precipitously in Campion’s screenplay – while Peter looks destined to become an outcast with his stalking about and vivisection studies. (Thomasin McKenzie’s vanishingly small role as a kitchen servant includes getting an unfortunate glimpse of Peter’s ex-pet bunny.)

Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter Gordon in The Power of the Dog (2021)
Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter Gordon in The Power of the Dog (2021)
© Courtesy of Netflix

But as Phil childishly acts out about his brother actually growing up, he’s also slowly self-destructing in his own fashion. With a suggestiveness more direct than earlier forays into the mythic West, the film orchestrates another kind of archetype in Phil: a man desperately trying to tamp down his sexuality by putting up a rough front to all around him. Cumberbatch summons Lee Marvin’s brash magnetic voice in creating a cowboy who’s know-it-all yet deeply confused, as he idolises an old friend, Bronco Henry, who was so perfect and manly it hurts.

The camera lingers on Phil rubbing down Bronco’s saddle, and communing with his memories with a bath in his Lawrentian secret place, a pond behind a thicket. Elsewhere Campion dots the film with earthy close-ups or hard edits (blood droplets on wheat, cattle castration); actual human touch is used sparingly and powerfully.

Where it all ends up feels at once cathartic and surprising, a denouement readable as lurid poetic justice and profound tragedy (our ears somehow pricked along the way by the odd high horns in Jonny Greenwood’s score). Palpably curious about this environment, Campion again perches us on an edge of civilisation, as in The Piano (indeed, a piano proves central to Rose’s struggles), one that is more secure yet stricken with its own unresolved tensions and violence.

An early interior pan, tracking the world outside the Burbanks’ house through its windows, is echoed later on in a way that underlines how Campion has drawn out the instability at the heart of the American West’s handed-down myths of projected authority and all-consuming (yet often weirdly chaste) machismo. While the resolution of The Power of the Dog puts a lid on things in a way many past Campion movies don’t, it’s a most welcome return to feature-filmmaking for her after two seasons of Top of the Lake arcs.


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