Injecting homoeroticism into the Western genre is nothing new, with The Sisters Brothers and Brokeback Mountain being just a couple of somewhat recent examples, but the great Jane Campion’s long-awaited return to features, The Power Of The Dog, feels fresh due to its fascinating tone and examination of today’s hot button issue of toxic masculinity. Adapted from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, Campion delivers a slow, stately, and stunning depiction of how unchecked machismo has continued to impact society.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Phil Burbank, who with his brother George (Jesse Plemons) operates a successful ranch in 1925 Montana. While George adopts a mannered, genteel persona, Phil, physically rigid and hard-staring, is one cigarette away from being the Marlboro Man. At a stopover on a cattle drive one day, they encounter Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her lanky, effeminate son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who prepare and serve food to the guests. Phil and his posse instantly key into Peter’s lisp, the way he holds his napkin, and his penchant for making paper flowers, leading to an onslaught of homophobic slurs. Although Rose doesn’t have the agency to defend her son, she clearly won’t soon forget this attack.
When George takes a liking to Rose, eventually marrying her and bringing her back to the ranch, Phil feels threatened by her presence, labeling her a gold digger. On a break from his college medical studies, Phil soon joins them as well, creating an unhealthy dynamic in the Burbank household. Through Rose and Peter, we witness the crushing effects bullying has on them, while through Phil, we see how his adopting a patriarchal stance has crushed his soul, along with everybody else’s. The push-pull of his relationship with Peter takes over the second half of the film. You wonder if Phil’s atoning for past grievances or setting a trap for this ill-treated kid.
That mystery and tension had me in its grip from beginning to end. The film has sparse dialogue and gorgeous cinematography by Ari Wegner, who impressed me with her unforgettable work on In Fabric. Here, she frames the characters against the grand expanse of the wild west, with New Zealand standing in for Montana; the imposing landscape perhaps causing men to toughen up just as much as the ways in which they’ve been socialized.
Cumberbatch’s performance commands attention from the start as we watch his façade chip away from one scene to the next. Phil’s threats chill the bone, as do his acts of kindness. Violence could erupt at any moment with a man as tightly wound as him. He literally drives Rose to drink and pulls Peter into situations which grow more and more ominous. Cumberbatch gives the performance of his career here, forcing us to duck and cover at his hair-trigger temper or feel deep empathy for layers of himself he has long buried. One blistering scene at a private watering hole shows us all of these sides. It’s utterly beguiling and terrifying.
A tad underwritten, the film’s austerity sometimes jettisons certain motivations, particularly when it comes to Plemons’ character. George gets abandoned by the script, making it a bit unclear what he knows and how he feels about it. Plemons, as always, does fine work, but he is eclipsed by his co-stars, who truly shine. Dunst beautifully conveys the desperation of a mama bear who can’t protect her young or even herself from male aggression, and Smit-McPhee seizes the screen with his watchful, gentle, yet sly performance. While his role lacks the kind of scenes which end up on Oscar reels, his quiet manner coupled with the actor’s own mystique kept me seated upright. I haven’t seen a bullied gay character portrayed before with this much watchfulness and smarts. Smit-McPhee is brilliant. While the film looks like a Western, it feels more like an intimate chamber drama pitting old school masculinity against a type of New World presentation. It’s that story sometimes just on the edges of a typical oater which beguiles here.
Who will win out? Hard to say. While the film offers up its own definitive answer, men like Phil and Peter still seem to be at odds with each other to this day. Knowing this, especially when this fantastic film comes to its surprising, diabolical conclusion, will send a chill up your spine. Welcome back, Jane Campion. Your female gaze about the male gaze adds a new wrinkle to the conversation about gays.
The Power Of The Dog is in select US theaters and streaming globally on Netflix.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic