Like many of the greatest Westerns, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog is a film built on paradoxes. Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an eccentric cowboy who somehow projects charisma and insecurity, intelligence and ignorance, all at once. He is strong and aloof, but also brittle and easily broken. Every character in this story finds themselves locked within his orbit, whether or not they want to be.
The closest body to this unstable sun is George (Jesse Plemons), Phil’s introverted little brother. They share a well-worn love, but George has gradually grown weary of Phil’s domineering ways. The film begins with the two men riding herd, and the garrulous Phil finds George has almost nothing to say.
Dog also mimics many other Westerns by setting itself during a time of transition for the frontier. In this case, it’s Montana, circa 1925. Model Ts now pock the landscape. Telephones and powered lights occupy just about every house. Over the course of this story, Phil joins a long history of cinematic cowboys who must grapple with the fact that their way of life is quickly becoming the stuff of history books.
Early in Dog, we also learn that Phil is a man of many unsavory traits. He is savage and cruel; his withering insults seem designed to either bring people to heel or repulse them altogether. Phil finds two easy targets in the form of Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), her awkward, offbeat son. She’s pleasant in a pitiful way, with a mousey meekness that makes her the perfect piñata for Phil to batter into bits. The boy wears an even bigger bullseye: He’s tall, scrawny, effeminate, and cerebral–everything Phil was born to annihilate. When the brothers take their crew of cowboys to Rose’s inn for the night, it isn’t long before Phil tries to smash mother and child with an emotional bat.
At the same time, George finds himself struck by Rose’s porcelain decency. She’s sweet, naive, and completely vulnerable–or, the opposite of Phil. George decides to court Rose, much to his brother’s chagrin. As the couple grows more serious, Phil undermines their romance at every step, often using Peter as collateral damage. Before the movie is over, Phil will wage war on Rose’s very soul.
This psycho-spiritual assault takes Dog in some surprising directions. I won’t reveal those here, except to say Campion spends the second half of the story applying shade to Phil’s character. He is no mere scenery-chewing villain. Indeed, there are strange, alternating currents of warmth and wickedness flowing beneath Phil’s petulant surface. He is evil, but there is also much more.
Cumberbatch has built a varied career, with both heroes and villains dotting his resume. Phil might be the most compelling character he’s played on either side. I once heard someone say that meanness requires just as much work as friendliness–or, you really have to want to be perpetually hateful. Phil seems like someone who’s put in hard labor at being insufferably sullen, with the precision of a master craftsman. He is one of strongest and most frightening souls in recent cinematic history. This is Cumberbatch’s best chance yet to take home an Oscar.
The rest of the cast is on that same level. Plemons is outstanding as George, a man who embodies the strange combinations of warm and aloof, mediocre and ambitious. He’s every bit as complex and paradoxical as Phil, albeit in a completely different way. Meanwhile, Smit-McPhee plays Peter as willfully strange and socially insulated to the point of being bulletproof: He isn’t so much withdrawn as lying in wait. As his mother, Dunst embodies the deep tragedy that lurks around the film’s edges. Rose’s fragile humanity seems destined to be shattered by the belligerent men around her.
Campion deploys her native New Zealand as a stand-in for Montana. It’s a risky gambit that actually pays off: This is a gorgeous film that somehow feels both familiar and foreign. Almost every character in Dog spends the movie wading into unfamiliar spiritual territory, and Campion’s exotic frontier only underlines the dissonance.
All this disharmony builds to an ending that will delight some viewers and confound others. I found it to be the perfect coda to Campion’s strange, gripping little film. The Power of the Dog muddies its ending, allowing happiness and melancholia to flow within the same brick-brown river. This puts it in league with classic Westerns like The Searchers and Unforgiven. Those films were never about good guys or bad guys so much as the survivors, people who lived long enough to look back and supply poetry to their magnificent struggle. This is one of the year’s best films.
126 min. R. Netflix.