The banjo may seem like an innocent instrument, but in The Power of the Dog, it’s downright menacing. The swaggering rancher Phil Burbank (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) at the center of Jane Campion’s new film is introduced as a thin-skinned bully who’s quick to insult those around him. But I didn’t realize what a frightening character he was going to be until Phil retired to his bed, pulled out a banjo, and started angrily plucking at it; that humble string instrument hasn’t been played so malevolently on-screen since the notorious “dueling banjos” of Deliverance.
Campion’s first feature film in 12 years, based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Savage, is set on a 1925 Montana ranch that’s surrounded by spiky mountains and acres of barren landscape filled with both promise and hostility. There, Phil has proudly carved out a lonely existence for himself as a cattle herder, while his full-hearted brother, George (Jesse Plemons), is dissatisfied with their spartan life and seeking companionship. Into this dynamic wanders local widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). George marries Rose, seeing the newcomers as the beginning of a real family, but Phil derides them as too weak for life on the range.
Westerns almost always wrestle with masculinity in some way, whether through a simple yarn about heroes and villains in the open country, or through a darker reckoning with Americans’ desire to conquer land that is not their own. In The Power of the Dog, Campion embraces the genre’s many possibilities. Each member of her wounded foursome reflects a different aspect of the tainted promise of the West. But Phil, played magnificently by Cumberbatch in a role that’s completely against type, is the furious engine of the film’s heartbreak.
Phil sees himself as the ultimate cowboy. He constantly invokes a now-dead mentor named Bronco Henry who taught him how to survive on the frontier and lashes out at anyone else who dares to try to forge a connection with him. He castrates bulls by hand, binds twine together to make his own ropes, and rarely bathes; whenever he’s inside the drafty mansion his brother has constructed, he feels out of place, like some grimy poltergeist disrupting George’s facade of civility. George may not be spoiling for a fight in the same way that Phil is, but the symbolic fracture between the brothers is undeniable: George desires domesticity, moving grand pianos into the house and hosting dinner parties with politicians, while Phil craves eternal wilderness—the kind of world he can prove his own toughness in. The clash feels almost biblical in nature, a face-off between a harsh, unjust world and a gentle, modern one.
An entire movie about Phil’s cruelty to everyone around him might be unwatchable. But Campion is an empathetic director, and she’s long been drawn to characters whose emotions are buried deep, such as the electively mute Ada of The Piano, the squirrelly older sister Kay of Sweetie, or the introverted academic Frannie of In the Cut. Phil is one of the most layered, enthralling protagonists in her filmography. He has erected impenetrable force fields around his anxieties about manliness, but Peter, whom he initially dismisses as an effeminate mama’s boy, forces him to begin to confront hidden neuroses about his own sexuality. Every twitch on Cumberbatch’s face feels like an earthquake for the viewers, as he draws out the drama in the barest hint of feeling.
The Power of the Dog is structured in chapters, and each new one veers in a surprising direction. George and Rose’s romance is tender at first, but eventually crumbles under external pressures. Dunst’s performance is achingly nervy, some of the best work she’s done in years; Plemons registers his adoration and his apprehensions quietly, keeping a stiff upper lip in the face of Phil’s abuse and Rose’s inner demons. Smit-McPhee initially plays Peter as a sensitive teen making paper-flower arrangements to keep his mother happy, but he gradually reveals the character’s brutal side. Campion builds his antagonistic yet fraternal dynamic with Phil into a fascinating puzzle for audiences to try to solve.
But the film offers no definitive judgments on its anguished ensemble. The cinematographer Ari Wegner’s camera will occasionally zoom out for massive aerial shots that underline the insignificance of the people milling among the mountains, trying to make something of themselves. Campion never takes a side in the ongoing conflict between George and Phil, instead brilliantly capturing the purpose, and the futility, in each brother’s approach, making The Power of the Dog an inimitable viewing experience.
Listen to David Sims discuss The Power of the Dog on an episode of The Atlantic’s culture podcast The Review: