Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is smoking a cigarette on his bed when he overhears his brother, George, and brother’s wife, Rose (real-life partners Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst, respectively), consummating their marriage in a nearby room. Cumberbatch’s eyes briefly fill with emotion; is this panic or fear? Both? The difference seems minute in his situation, but his terror is a raw and candid instinct. Phil’s dread suggests a history, and in Cumberbatch’s eyes, audiences see a past life play out.
Phil is not a character that audiences like one bit: He embodies cruelty, but his mind’s eye is lush with the memory of his relationship with Bronco Henry, the one person for whom Phil still has a kind bone. In 1925 Montana, Phil must conceal his affection for Bronco by being the meanest man on the ranch; in his few sympathetic moments, he is a slave to his repressed identity. Was he always an incarnation of cruelty, slinging insults as brutally as he castrates a bull? At times, it seems like he just needs love back in his life. That’s where things heat up.
These are the moments where writer-director Jane Campion’s astonishingly economical writing shines, and in Ari Wegner’s penetrating cinematography, the film’s actors earn their flaunting. Phil’s identity crisis, which churns his anxieties about his dearest secret, is some two minutes of a 125-minute movie. The rest of Campion’s film is similarly dense — an elegant patchwork of connections that intertwine with one another.
“The Power of the Dog” is billed as a Western, but doesn’t get up to much of the genre’s free-roaming. There are shots galore of New Zealand’s vast landscape that alternately temper and breeze the film along. But most of the time, Campion locks her characters in a dark and gloomy house and fastidiously layers clues — mostly in the realm of psychological realism, but occasionally in the abstract — in the buildup to a confrontation that will spill blood on the plains.
For that reason, it doesn’t tell the whole story to say Rose is the center of Campion’s narrative; though she surely is, Campion takes time away from her, exchanging protagonists and subplots with ease. “The Power of the Dog” is the story of how a man’s abuse drives a mother into alcoholism, featuring piano allegory that calls back to the director’s previous work.
But, the filmmaker went all-in on “The Piano,” and continues to do so in “The Power of the Dog,” which rests on themes as broad as its setting. They roll out and away, like the New Zealand landscape that Campion chose to stand in for an unfettered Montana. It’s a coming-of-age tale in which Rose’s son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), swaps his sneakers for boots — or maybe for gloves.
The film’s narrative climaxes in one of the year’s most efficient endings. It’s one that maintains the mood of Campion’s script in its entirety, but it may lead to some hand-wringing about how thin “The Power of the Dog” can feel. It’s a bench of endlessly dynamic performances and Campion’s directorial acumen that break down any feeling of being staid.
The same cannot always be said of Jonny Greenwood’s score, which plucks its way from beginning to end. It is dark and moody, but lacks the echoes and timbres Jerry Goldsmith once used to elevate “Chinatown.” Campion, of course, doesn’t seem interested in a heavy-handed score; her film operates in quiet registers.
It’s a great touch by Campion, who resists overplaying her hand above all. In its most shadowed moments, “The Power of the Dog” allows audiences to fill in the lapses the script guides them through. “The Power of the Dog” not only understands that films are, by definition, an act of the viewer filling in the gaps, but that a story blooms with the guidance of imagination. Campion trusts audiences to follow along, and, in the end, to know who will “deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.”