In Jane Campion’s elegant adaptation of Thomas Savage’s novel The Power of the Dog, nature is an instrument of both wonder and violence. In 1925, the wealthy Burbank brothers, George (Jesse Plemons) and Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), run a Montana cattle ranch. The intellectually dull George meekly endures the aggressive bluster of his Yale-educated but pointedly crude brother. (“Too stupid to go to college,” Phil barks at him at one point.) Their lives revolve around livestock and scruffy male company, seemingly stripped of finer pleasures, until George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), the homely widowed proprietress of a nearby inn. Rose and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) settle at the Burbank estate, prompting Phil’s scorn.
The audacity of the original book comes from Savage combining a heated sibling rivalry, an illicit love story, the Western myths of male virility, and a murder mystery all within its slim pages. The earnest and disarming George aside, most of the characters carefully guard secrets in their chests. Phil performs abrasive masculinity to overcompensate for his buried desire for men. But his brutal ridicule of Peter evolves from abuse to mentorship, in a silent acknowledgment of their shared queerness. Campion handles such psychological denseness with virtuoso control, often whittling scenes to snippets of emotion and innuendo. Particularly gripping are Plemons’s sense of dogged but quiet resilience and Dunst’s protective hypersensitiveness.
The film contrasts tenderness and brutality in its many scenes involving animals. In one sequence, Rose tenderly embraces a frightened rabbit that Peter brings into the house. A cook’s helper innocently brings a carrot to feed the creature, only to find Peter dissecting its body as part of his studies for his medical degree, hinting that he has more “grit” than one may suspect. Similarly, Phil refuses to cover his hands when castrating a bull. Gloves are an operative metaphor, in fact. Rose caresses a pair of soft leather gloves. Peter uses his own set of gloves strategically. The story pits the defensive against the insensitive, and it’s not always those who fight with “gloves off” who are the most ruthless.
The measuredly paced direction and Ari Wagner’s airy cinematography marry the characters’ hidden anguish to the stoicism of the Montana landscape. Campion often slows down the telling to punctuate the imagery with stunning surveys of the mountains, sometimes glimpsed from the indoors through windows and doorways, suggesting limited points of view. It’s a delicious game till the very end, which casts all of Peter’s interactions with Phil in an entirely new light. It becomes clear that whether you’re showing pictures of a steely vista or telling a tale, framing is everything.
The Power of the Dog is available to stream on Netflix.