New Zealand film director Jane Campion is known for her deep explorations of the human psyche and of the choices people make in the midst of terrifying and difficult situations. Her 1993 masterpiece, “The Piano,” captures the terror and anxiety of a mute woman (Holly Hunter) who has been essentially sold into marriage to a violent and possessive man. The film is an experience because Campion excels at creating unlikely juxtapositions between the merciless landscape and mercy-seeking human beings.
Her newest film, “The Power of the Dog,” is no exception. In fact, as a fan of Campion’s work, I was pleased to see that once again, she chose to focus on people’s struggles rather than any “message” or ideology. “The Power of the Dog” is based on the 1967 eponymous novel by Thomas Savage, and it tells a story of two brothers, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons), who are wealthy ranchers in 1925 Montana. George, who is a shy and good man, courts a widow, Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst). Rose has a son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who has a close relationship with his mother.
Rose runs a restaurant in the middle of nowhere Montana, but she is clearly overworked, and needs help. Despite the hard work ethic she exhibits, she is depressed and fragile. On one occasion, Phil, George, and the rest of the farm hands eat at Rose’s establishment, and Phil takes it as an opportunity to make fun of Peter. Phil is a bully who calls Peter “Miss Nancy” as a reaction to his effeminate nature. This event sets the stage for what’s to come later in the development of a relationship between Phil and Peter, if one can call it that.
Phil is disgusted by the fact that George married Rose. It’s not so much that he hates her lack of social standing, but one gets an impression that he hates her womanhood, or perhaps her weakness. Admittedly, Rose is a mess. Phil’s bullying and terrorizing has no end, and despite the fact that Rose is now wealthy, and Peter is able to go to medical school thanks to the Burbank money, she falls deeper into depression and takes to the bottle.
In the meantime, Phil continues to terrorize Peter, who appears to be the real prey of Phil’s predatory ways. But things begin to change when Peter discovers Phil’s secret that implies he had an affair with Bronco Henry —a cowboy from whom he learned everything there is to know about ranching. It is at this point that Phil begins to change his behavior toward Peter, and wants to teach him how to be a real man, whatever that may be in the context of their lives.
It wasn’t hard to guess right from the beginning of the film that Phil, at the very least, has homoerotic desires given his insistence to always try to prove his masculinity. In this case, casting Benedict Cumberbatch was an excellent decision because he is an unlikely cowboy. Yet it would be a mistake to dismiss Campion’s film as a “social issues” film. This film is not about alcoholism or homosexuality. It is about human relationships of fear and terror.
Most films that deal with themes of “social consciousness” tend to treat the subjects as cardboard cutouts who are mere representatives of a given ideology, and not people with interior lives. But Campion does quite the opposite. There is no attempt whatsoever at subversion of any values, since that is not a focus of her film at all. Rather, Phil and Rose are human beings first and foremost, caught in their own emotions of anger, fear, and sadness.
Campion is incredibly restrained in her presentation of sexuality, and what takes precedence are implications based purely on aesthetics and our experience of it. Campion creates a juxtaposition between Montana’s vast landscape, and the deep turmoil of emotion inside particular people. It is as if the land is the character itself, and it doesn’t care for the seemingly petty and meaningless issues of four people in the middle of nowhere.
Much like in “The Piano,” we see a bully peddling fear and terror, and trying to destroy love. But in “The Power of the Dog,” there is not a shred of sentimentality or warmth. In one of the scenes, Rose is mortified when George asks her to play something on the piano for the governor and his wife. Her simple and harmless nervousness turns to anguish when she sees Phil in the same room. She is unable to play anything, and Dunst’s facial terror reveals all. The audience constantly questions where the next scene might go precisely because of Phil’s menacing stares. At the beginning, it is Phil who is the predator, but as tension mounts, Peter is not so much a prey as we have originally assumed. The denouement turns the tables entirely, and the innocent and sensitive awkwardness of Peter takes on an unexpected and dark form.
Campion has created an atmospheric horror story in which fear and merciless landscape are the primary “characters.” Aesthetically, it is an incredible film, but unlike “The Piano,” to which I always come back, the terror of “The Power of the Dog” is far too discordant to elicit another viewing. The discord is visually beautiful and powerful, but it ultimately creates a sphere that makes no room for further philosophical questioning.