The Power of the Dog
2021, R, 126 min. Directed by Jane Campion. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie, Genevieve Lemon, Keith Carradine, Frances Conroy, Peter Carroll.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Nov. 19, 2021
The most overbearing character in The Power of the Dog is never seen. After all, Bronco Henry's been dead for decades. But his shadow, his legend, his mystique and brutish masculinity hangs over the Montana ranch that is the remote home to the Burbank brothers, Phil (Cumberbatch) and George (Plemons). They don't seem like siblings at all. George, who rides horses in his suit and has a car, seems at home in the dark and elegant Victorian house they share. Phil's bowlegged from all his time in the saddle, a sardonic roughrider with a penchant for cruelty. But if they weren't brothers, still sharing the same bedroom, would George acquiesce every time Phil calls him Fatso?
It's those little details that start to construct Jane Campion's powerful and tragic adaptation of Thomas Savage's 1967 novel. Superficially, it's part of the grand tradition of Western novels about battling dynasties (Savage himself wrote several books in that vein), but this isn't the Old West. This is 1925, and Phil is desperately hanging on to the dying ways through the myth of Bronco Henry, whose name elicits wide-eyed wonder from the cowboys with whom he spends his time. Meanwhile, George has bigger plans. He's what their absentee parents (Conroy as the Old Lady and Carroll as the Old Gent) wanted their boys to be, and he wants Rose (Dunst), the widow who runs the boarding house in the nearby market town. With her comes her effete, angular, awkward son, Peter (Smit-McPhee) – or, as Phil calls him, Miss Nancy.
Scarcely repressed homophobia is a rampant theme in both Savage's book and Campion's script, but the bullying that Pete endures is a fragment of all the broken pieces of Phil, a man at constant war with himself who lashes out at everyone and everything that isn't the fetishized Bronco Henry. His primary target is the fragile Rose – an easy target, considering George is away on business so much – and this is the true spark for the inevitable conflagration. Yet it's a quiet fire, like a branch charcoaling from within.
Bluntly, The Power of the Dog may end up being as widely misinterpreted as Midsommar (no, that's not a happy ending) or Phantom Thread (again, not a grand romantic victory). That will not be Campion's fault, but that of the preconceptions stirred by the looks that Phil throws the winsome Pete's way. Phil is the protagonist, antagonist, villain, and victim here, those elements all balanced in a career best (and that's saying something) performance from Cumberbatch as a desperate man incapable of processing change except through ferocious and bitter malice. Those misreadings are through his eyes, the result of all the complex levels of himself that he has rejected through all those years of literally shining Bronco Henry's empty saddle. It's a performance predicated on the difference between empathy and sympathy: The audience will increasingly, through those details at which Cumberbatch has always excelled, comprehend who exactly he is, and how his pretense of strength has been forged through submitting to the claustrophobic expanses of the plains (New Zealand standing in for Montana, and starkly captured through the lens of cinematographer Ari Wegner).
The core of the film is two conflicts: Phil with himself, and Phil with Rose. The latter is most overt, and within which it's easiest to loathe Phil. Campion and her cast do an extraordinary job of bringing all these characters in midway through their own private traumas, and Dunst brings silent grace and sadness to a woman inherently doubting her own motivations, even before Phil becomes the menacing shadow in the corner of her eye, the stinking, muck-covered presence she can smell before he enters the room. It's during these moments, abandoned by Plemons' mannered and oblivious George and deprived of the emotional support of Smit-McPhee's college-bound Pete, that she drags the audience with her as she spirals into despair, as all the while Phil malevolently grins.
But Cumberbatch is not interested in creating a cardboard villain. His grasp of tiny nuances of movement and micro-inflections overcomes any doubts about the definitionally upper-middle-class English actor as a tortured and torturing cowpoke. As in The Imitation Game and, most recently, in the quirky but still sad The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, he again plays a man betrayed by his time. Take Phil out of 1925, the story implicitly suggests, and he is not this Phil. But at any other time there is no Bronco Henry, and this tragedy would not be so darkly heartrending.