When Chloe Zhao’s The Rider released in 2018, it felt like a breath of fresh air for the western. A genre seen almost exclusively from the male perspective throughout cinema history, her meditation on the dangers of toxic masculinity in that setting proved extremely powerful. Now, Jane Campion has achieved something similar, and arguably more profound, with The Power of the Dog, an epic drama driven by male fragility that expertly plays with the very notion of who we champion as our heroes in the Wild West.
Benedict Cumberbatch leads as Phil Burbank, an early 20th century cowboy who thunders around his home and family as a self-declared master of the space. He’s a domineering force critical of any small sign of weakness his brother George (Jesse Plemons) let’s out. But when George starts courting Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a nearby restaurant owner, Phil ends up on a crash course to friction with Rose’s son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). He, living out west in the 1920s, let’s it be somewhat obvious that he is some manner of queer. Long before there was any sort community for him to be a part of, all he has between school years is his family, which suddenly includes Phil, putting him in immediate danger every second they are together.
But don’t mistake The Power of the Dog for some feel good story where Phil comes around from his homophobia and they eventually live a happy life in their isolated farm home. Cumberbatch is a threat in every scene he’s in, and that doesn’t change by the film’s end, even as his character and relationships shift. His performance, however, doesn’t merely create an out-and-out villain. In Cumberbatch’s hands, Phil is a man running from his own vulnerability—his veil of a strength a façade for an unbearable sadness buried deep within. It is sure to get some much deserved attention come awards season.
The other performers prove equally capable in drawing their characters. After Fargo’s second season pitted them as husband and wife, The Power of the Dog resumes their careful, uncomfortable, yet somehow sweet romantic chemistry. But as the film goes on, Dunst breaks out on her own as Rose spirals and slowly becomes incapable of taking care of herself. Skilled as ever, Dunst finds the perfect balance, working through dramatic scenes and never overdoing it. That said, the quiet MVP here is Smit-McPhee. Tasked with the most subtle but important arc of the film, there’s a confident sensuality that, though his character is somewhat doomed by the time and place in which he happens to exist, gives him a mysterious power. Cumberbatch is likely to be the talk of the town when it comes to awards, but without Smit-McPhee’s precise take on Peter, the film would lose something more significant.
Together, however, the ensemble feels so in tune with the film as a whole. This is a character drama first and foremost, and each of them are given time and space to find truthful humanity in their roles. Seeing it succeed as well as it does here is a chief reminder that all it takes to get truly absorbed into a work are strong story and characters. But that’s not to say Campion skirts on style. Ari Wegner’s cinematography will knock the wind out of you, and Jonny Greenwood’s appropriately intense score feels lifted from a horror movie.
All these elements working together in tandem, Campion has made the rare film that earns your attention from the first minute to the last. The cinematic appeal of the western genre is the grand scope that such ultimately small human stories are told within. The Power of the Dog’s overall story is appropriately smaller than the lot of them, but Campion gives it the look of an epic, thus lending gravitas that make this intimate human story suddenly feel vital as a meditation on the evolution of male relationships, sexual or not. For the west is still wild, but the actions that would save one’s life in this story take something not always on the menu in westerns.