It’s amazing to me that it’s been 12 years since the acclaimed Jane Campion has directed a film. Until now, her most recent work was the well-received but barely seen Bright Star, about poet John Keats. It’s been nearly 20 years since her last mainstream film, the underwhelming In the Cut. While her output has been relatively small, and the reception hit and miss, there’s never any doubt as to the earnestness and deliberate attention to detail she puts into her work, which even with the worst of results is not only to be appreciated, but outright admired. She’s been a pioneer for women in cinema for the past 30 years, and the world of film has definitely missed her insightful eye.
Thankfully, the long wait in between projects has yielded her greatest work since her Oscar-winning opus, The Piano (for which she earned a Best Director nomination and a win for Original Screenplay) in the form of The Power of the Dog, based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage. In this moody, gorgeously filmed character study, Campion applies the best of her skills to give us a brilliant piece of psychological drama led by the best Western villain this side of Anton Chigurh.
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Phil Burbank, a Montana rancher in 1925, who has accrued a respectable amount of wealth through his work with his brother, George (Jesse Plemons). Introducing himself as an almost pure personification of toxic masculinity, Phil abides nothing that doesn’t fit his ideal of a so-called “man’s man” in the American frontier. Despite a formal Ivy League education in the “Classic” languages, Phil asserts a “Marlboro Man” persona that would almost feel parodic if it weren’t for the full commitment of Cumberbatch’s performance. From the opening moments where he calls his brother “fatso” and continuously mocks him for simple things like bathing, to his screaming at a player piano at an inn for being too loud, there is no question that he wants to always be seen as the alpha.
He never misses an opportunity to present his version of life as the way all things should be, a personality trait brought front and center when he brings his crew to dinner during a cattle run. During a meal served by a widow named Rose (Kirsten Dunst in her finest performance ever), he admires intricately made paper flowers adorning the table, until he learns that they were not made by a woman, but by Rose’s teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays Nightcrawler in the James McAvoy X-Men timeline, but this should be his true star-making role), at which point he makes a show of burning the flowers to light his cigarette in full view of both.
His animus is George’s gain, however, as the latter’s more benevolent nature leads him to fixate on Rose, eventually courting and marrying her. He moves Rose to the family ranch and pays for Peter to attend medical school (he hopes to become a surgeon), much to Phil’s chagrin. Seeing Rose as nothing more than a “schemer,” Phil takes it upon himself to psychologically torture her, literally driving her to drink. When Peter returns home for summer break, Phil actually takes a shine to him, partially because he wants to turn him into a “real man,” but also because every second he spends with the lad is just another way to torment Rose.
There’s a rich, almost delicious malice to Phil’s cruelty, mostly because it isn’t grounded in pure misogyny (the quasi-reveal of the roots of his hatred is a great bit of added dimension that I honestly did not expect). Also, his methods don’t fit the stereotypical model of the Western outlaw even when the rest of his personality mirrors it almost perfectly. To Phil, a cad of means, it would be too easy to simply hurt Rose. He has plenty of opportunities to take advantage of her and abuse her physically, but he seems to treat such an idea as beneath him and his talents. Instead, he always opts for getting inside her head and destroying her from within.
Either way, it’s all about control for Phil, about dominance of what he perceives as an inferior. He’ll leave the violence to his work, where we literally see him castrating calves. For Rose, though, he reserves the mental trickery. He lurks silently around every corner of the home, making her increasingly paranoid about his ability to strike. In an absolutely brilliantly pointed scene, he watches her struggle while practicing a tune on the piano, then goes upstairs and plays it perfectly on his own banjo every time she makes another attempt. Once he knows he’s psyched her out, he never wastes a chance to whistle the song around her, a constant reminder as to who’s in charge. By the time Peter arrives, giving Phil the opportunity to manipulate her son away from her, he’s got Rose wrapped up tighter than the symbolic rawhide lasso he weaves throughout the film.
Cumberbatch’s performance is next level here, beyond anything he’s ever done. Sure, he’s played villains before (Smaug, Khan Noonien Singh, Julian Assange, the motherfucking Grinch, etc.), but he’s never been so diabolical as he is here. Brilliant, calculating, fueled by a quiet desperation that he himself can never keep quiet, there are times where he rewrites the rulebook on what it means to be a convincing baddie. Because despite his horrific treatment of other people, there is a degree of nobility to his work and his intentions when viewed through a certain lens. He’s not altogether sympathetic, but there are moments where you can understand his point of view and even empathize without condoning his actions. He sees a purity in the land and a freedom in his abandonment of the gentry. He is capable of love and affection to offset his cascading resentment, which helps him rise above the level of a simple sociopath. There’s a degree of admiration and envy towards Peter, which hints at the possibility of true redemption, and also reveals the blind spot that could be his undoing.
In spite of his lanky figure, Cumberbatch, through Phil, commands an intimidating and imposing presence, especially for Peter, who is even more slight. Yet there’s a hidden brilliance in the youth, a willingness to extend a hand in friendship without betraying just how much of the big picture he sees. Among the more expertly-framed scenes (seriously, Ari Wegner’s cinematography – representing New Zealand as Big Sky Country – is off the fucking charts here) is one where the Phil asks Peter if he can see anything in the hills surrounding the ranch, and Peter notes what appears to be a shadow in the shape of a dog with its mouth open, something Phil himself notes took him years to find. This is one of the only hints we get in this slow burn that the boy is more on top of things than anyone realizes. It’s a credit to Smit-McPhee’s performance that he can stand toe-to-toe with a titan thespian and find the moments to steal the spotlight.
There’s a lot of great stuff in this picture, from Campion’s direction, to the performances and camera work, to Jonny Greenwood providing an excellent minimalist score full of repeating melody lines using individual instruments assigned to each character like a modern-day “Peter and the Wolf.” My only real criticism is with the story, particularly the ending. There are some obvious parallels to other films at play here, but I won’t mention them because that in itself would spoil things. And to be clear, I’m not upset at how the story itself concludes, merely the speed at which it does. The first 110 of the film’s 128 minutes are filled with deep explorations of the characters and visual glory, but then once all the pieces are positioned on the proverbial chess board, the resolution comes in the equivalent of three moves. Because of that, we’re robbed of the deeper catharsis that the character and plot development promises. It’s rare when I’m actually sad that a movie’s final act isn’t stretched out further, but this is one of those cases. I feel like there was so much more left to learn, and a much subtler way to get to the same final moments than what ended up on the screen. The ratio of buildup to payoff is too far skewed to be completely satisfying. Either trimming 10 minutes from the first two acts or adding 10 to the third would have likely fixed this issue.
Aside from that, this is one of the best films of the year, and honestly, it’s earned all the hype it’s gotten since its Venice debut back in September. This is sure to be one of the top contenders with the Academy, and deservedly so. Jane Campion returns to her rightful place behind the camera and delivers a work that was well worth the wait, giving us an all-timer of an antagonist while drawing out some of the best small ensemble performances of 2021.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Are you a fan of Westerns, and if so, what’s your favorite? Who are your favorite cinematic villains? Let me know!