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The Power of the Dog

Jane Campion's new film The Power of the Dog, which won the Best Director Award at the Venice Film Festival, opens at the Paris Theater on November 17.

“He’s just a man,” is one fearfully-whispered, succinct description of Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), the center of gravity of Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog. By this point in the film, it’s clear that this is both true and not. He is just a man—a domineering foil to his buttoned-up brother George (Jesse Plemons), and a torment to George’s demure new wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). But as Rose softly assures Peter, Phil’s silhouette appears in the background: a tiny blur hovering over her shoulder, whose slow swagger undercuts her words more forcefully than a literal focus-pull.

It takes a masterful artist to shift the air of a scene through the slightest suggestion of a character—but with The Power of the Dog, her first feature since 2009’s Bright Star and the 2017 season of Top of the Lake, Campion chisels an impressionistic route into emotional lives. Her films eschew straightforward motivations, let alone traditional narrative beats; even while studying at the Australian Film, Television, and Radio School in Sydney, she recalled her alienation from the spectacle-oriented projects of her classmates. Instead, she’s drawn to nonverbal truths that even her characters may not be able to articulate, which makes for a hypnotic contrast with cinema’s emphasis on the external. Campion’s trademark is her tactile way of tapping into her characters’ headspaces: consider The Piano, where the way that Holly Hunter delicately brushes her fingers along her instrument’s ivory keys evokes her inner world. The Power of the Dog is the first of Campion’s films to focus on a male character, and although Phil is a less palatable personality than many of Campion’s protagonists, there’s a similar richness to the characterizations of Thomas Savage’s original novel. Phil’s malice is deliberate and despicable, but he’s weighed down by several pieces of social armor, and it may prove lethal to let down that guard.

As the well-off owners of a Montana cattle ranch in 1925, anchored by a Victorian house that can’t help but evoke the iconic centerpiece of Days of Heaven, Phil and George are a study in contrasts: Phil is the perpetually mud-slathered head of the ranchers, while George is clean-cut and society-ready in stiff suits. With an acerbic wit, Phil knows how to press on George’s rawest bruises, and frequently ribs his brother about his shyness and his hang-ups about dropping out of college. But the two are also unusually dependent on each other, and still share the same room; Phil even mythologizes them as “Romulus and Remus” to the wolf of his revered, long-departed mentor, Bronco Henry. Yet this dynamic crucially shifts when George marries Rose, the sweet, widowed owner of a boarding house in town. Her willowy son, Peter, quickly attracts Phil’s ire: a convenient target both for his resentment toward George and his deep-rooted homophobia.

Phil responds to this loss of control with psychological warfare, encapsulated in Campion’s thoughtful, downright menacing sound design. This is especially true in scenes that take place indoors, which highlight the utter quietude of living in the middle of nowhere; even the slightest floorboard creak can rupture a private reverie. When Rose practices piano in the middle of the day—a potential hobby that George hoped would make her feel at home—she practices trills uncertainly, still uncomfortable in the house after leaving behind her working-class background. Phil tactfully, silently appears behind her, although she can’t hear him over her music until he moves up the stairs. She halts playing, disrupted by the possible clunk of a boot on the stairs, and the wind whistles, a reminder of how isolated they all are together. Then, as Rose begins practicing again, Phil begins playing the same melody on his banjo—emanating quietly from the upstairs bedroom, but definitively eclipsing her in virtuosity. For all of Phil’s scathing one-liners, these moments of quiet menace linger the most; later on, he is able to undo Rose completely by whistling this same melody while hidden from view, as if inducing the madness of not belonging. When she collapses toward the end of the film—overwhelmed by alcoholism induced by Phil’s laser-sharp torture—the figure of a rancher looms behind her in the trees, and even though he’s not Phil, his shadow is a visual reminder of how definitively he’s burrowed into her head.

We come to realize that Phil’s reprehensible behavior arises from his fear of abandonment, cast out by a world whose norms he can never completely dominate. Although the thudding footsteps of his cowboy boots project an illusion of classical masculinity, the solidity of that sound contrasts with the tightly-wound anxiety of composer Jonny Greenwood’s string arrangements, all swirling around dissonant guitar arpeggi. As Campion gradually reveals aspects of Phil’s backstory—his teenage attraction to Bronco Henry ran deeper than simply seeing him as a role model—she avoids reducing his character to psychological cause and effect. Instead, Campion dwells in the emotional murkiness of his outsider status: she discomfits us with his ugly rage at losing George to Rose and social acceptability, but despite the way Phil twists both of them around his fingers, it will always be impossible for him to comfortably inhabit his own space. When Phil escapes into the woods to bathe on his own—only able to rinse off his protective residue in total privacy—Campion ditches the stark silhouettes of Fordian Americana for lushly stylized scenes on the riverbed, often recalling the homoerotic charge of the skinny dipping sequence in James Ivory’s A Room with a View. These moments pass like half-remembered dreams for Phil, and the greenery dissipates as he returns to the dusty homestead.

The result is a film that isn’t trying to court easy identification with its characters, nor lay out a clear-cut narrative path for them. Instead, The Power of the Dog is about people who do not realize the extent of their conflicts with social norms, and the devastating loneliness that arises from that battle. This may speak to Phil’s extreme distaste for Peter; as awkward as the gangly teen is, he’s self-assured in his disinterest in fitting in. Phil is shocked when Peter immediately discerns the shadow of a dog while gazing out at the mountains bordering their ranch—evincing his ability to see beyond the obvious, a talent that Phil thought he alone possessed. It’s a similar trick of perception that allows Campion to slice into those complicated, interlocking layers of being human, or as Rose once put it, of being “just a man.”

Chloe Lizotte is the Contributing Editor at Le Cinéma Club. She writes regularly for Reverse Shot, with additional bylines in Cinema Scope, Film Comment, Vulture, Screen Slate, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.