Montana rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is from an era where the measure of a man had little to do with character and everything to do with perceived toughness. Filled with stories from the various harrowing cattle drives he led with his brother George (Jesse Plemons), as well as those with his deceased mentor Bronco Henry, Phil is idolized by his workers. His gruff and arrogant demeanor are considered traits of a “real man”, one who would rather wear the filth of a hard day’s work than put on a stuffy suit for a fancy dinner. It is this vision of manhood that Jane Campion deconstructs in her mesmerizing new film The Power of the Dog.
In Phil’s narrow-minded view, the only things that matter are his brother, the health of his cattle, and the respect of his crew. Unfortunately, his reserved and more educated brother George has bigger ambitions for his life. A fact that becomes more apparent when he meets and marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst). Moving Rose and her college-age son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) onto the family ranch, George believes that Phil will grow to respect his decision over time.
Phil, however, has no intention of playing nice. Focusing most of his ire on Rose and Peter, Phil begins to systematically challenge them at every turn. When not having his men mock Peter for his lack of ruggedness, the young medical student’s sensitivity is a particular scab that Phil loves to pick at, he is tormenting Rose to the point where the bottle becomes her only solace. As George travels more for business, attempting to move up the social ladder of high society, Rose finds herself growing increasingly more isolated at the ranch.
As Phil’s venomous nature pushes Rose further into an isolating and claustrophobic corner, Campion’s film reveals itself to be a piercing study of toxic masculinity and the repressed desires that can fuel it. While George seems to distance himself more and more, lacking the courage to stand up to his brother, Peter attempts to meet Phil on his own turf by inquiring about his work. The young man’s curiosity about the things such as how one makes a lasso, allows him to penetrate Phil’s hard exterior.
It is in these cracks in the soil that Campion’s film digs up the roots of Phil’s poisonous ways. Adapted from Thomas Savage’s novel, The Power of the Dog does not aim for one to sympathize with Phil, but rather fully see the complexities of the destructive cycle he has found himself in. The mask of masculinity that he proudly wears, only serves to hide the emotional pain and loneliness that has long festered beneath. Through Cumberbatch’s blistering performance, Phil moves from fearsome monster to mortal man in the eyes of Peter and the audience.
Cumberbatch’s resonating performance is further accentuated and elevated by the sensational turns by Plemons and Dunst. While Plemons delivers a more understated performance, presenting George as a man who would rather cower under his brothers shadow than boldly step out from under it, Dunst makes one feel every ounce of the torment that Rose endures. She constructs a character who is desperately struggling to stay afloat in the pool of toxicity she has been thrown into.
As each person searches for air within the suffocating climate Phil has created, Campion uses the vastness of the New Zealand landscape, which is meant to pass for Montana’s plains in the film, to show how small their world really is. The legendary director constructs a film that is filled with visual queues that harken back to westerns of the past, including John Ford’s The Searchers, while having its own distinctive voice.
While not the first Campion film to highlight the damaging impact of toxic men, she finds new and captivating angles to explore here. Intricately constructed, The Power of the Dog is an exceptional work that festers in one’s mind. It is one of the best works you will see this year.