Master filmmaker Jane Campion, notching a fresh Silver Lion win for Best Direction at the recent Venice Film Festival, returns to the screen after a 12-year absence with The Power of the Dog, a handsome and potent Western based on the 1967 novel of the same title by Thomas Savage. The 67-year-old’s last feature, the lovely John Keats/Fanny Brawne romance Bright Star, stands among Campion’s most accomplished movies. The Power of the Dog can be added to that list. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait another dozen years for the next one.
Benedict Cumberbatch anchors a superb cast as Phil Burbank, a wealthy and well-educated rancher whose close partnership with his brother George (Jesse Plemons) is threatened when George marries widow Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst). Both Rose and her delicate son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) face the nonstop humiliation of Phil’s cruelty and harassment. Campion initially plays up the marked contrast between the siblings, hinting that the successes built by Phil and George could be destroyed by some unspoken turmoil — George is polite and fastidiously groomed while Phil is rude and much in need of soap.
The quotation from Psalm 22:20, “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog,” gives the story its title and initializes the possibility that Phil and George may travel the path of Cain and Abel or Jacob and Esau. But Campion knows when to hold back information and when to offer revelations that rearrange what viewers think they know about these characters and the things they hide in their hearts. Phil’s unyielding recalcitrance will be tempered with a degree of audience sympathy that brings to mind the danger of the love shared between Brokeback Mountain’s Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist in a narrow space where queerness defies the expectations of heteronormative cowboy life.
Campion investigates the bond between Phil and his late mentor Bronco Henry without flashback. Instead, she reveals information about the hard protagonist through his evolving interactions with Peter. The Power of the Dog contains several instances in which major surprises force viewers to reevaluate previous scenes. And Campion, assisted by Jonny Greenwood’s superb score, is brilliant at tightening the screws. Entire sequences unfold without spoken dialogue. Instead, the sounds in the ranch house — boots on stairs, an unwelcome duet between Rose and Phil — are as tense and evocative as any horror movie.
It is surely a disservice to reduce Campion’s filmography to a study in gender, despite the longstanding focus of so much scholarship. In Noelle A. Baker’s essay “The Limits of Sexual Emancipation: Feminism and Jane Campion’s Mythology of Love,” she asserts in her opening line, “Jane Campion directs movies about strong, eccentric women.” While The Power of the Dog makes an argument for the addition of “… and men” to that statement, Dunst’s Rose, indeed strong and eccentric, is another in a long line of richly drawn figures — and yes, strong and eccentric — whose interactions with and reactions to all of those in her orbit explode with thrilling complexity and layers of meaning.
Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is an associate professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997.