The film is a face-off between two visions of the American West—one of promise and the other of hostility.
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.