It’s been more than ten years since Jane Campion directed a feature film. That gap is, of course, not a sign of her creative lassitude but instead an indictment of a broken film culture that has dwindling space for adult-minded films of intricacy and nuance. There’s perhaps no starker measure of the distance between Campion’s sensibility and the state of the industry than the fact that a journalist from the leading showbiz trade publication took the occasion of an AFI screening of her new film, The Power of the Dog, bypassed any discussion of her formidable artistry to instead ask if she’d be up for directing a piece of product from the Marvel-Industrial Complex. When Campion should have been taking a victory lap for a new work that floored critics, it was her sharp dismissal of superhero movies that made click-hungry headlines.
The Power of the Dog is based on a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage. Set in 1925 Montana, a place where twentieth-century advances took their sweet time reaching, the film begins with the Burbank brothers, snarly Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and taciturn George (Jesse Plemons). They run the vast family ranch together in a partnership that already feels fraught when George further complicates the dynamic by wedding a widow named Rose (Kirsten Dunst). The marriage brings along her teenaged son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who exhibits gentler mannerisms that particular rankles Phil, offending his total commitment to the mythology of frontier masculinity.
Campion’s depiction of the narrative’s roiling conflicts cunningly skirts horror movie conventions, an approach aided significantly by Jonny Greenwood’s clanging, discordant score. The actors wear the psychic wounds of the characters heavily, enhancing the woozy feel. Keeping the florid feelings sufficiently grounded while simultaneously teetering into near-gothic extremes is a mighty challenge that the cast largely meets. In my view (which sits far enough outside the consensus that I feel compelled to acknowledge it), Cumberbatch is the one outlier in that respect, occasionally cannonballing straight into overacting. There’s a scene that centers on him shouting synonyms for drunkenness like a thesaurus audiobook playing a top volume that is ripe for parody. Even Cumberbatch’s moments of withdrawal meant to show the unspoken discord under the surface have a little too much signaling — overtly clear actorly choices, essentially — for my taste.
Take it as testament, then, that the furious focus of Campion largely overcomes whatever reservations I might have. In the pantheon of arty Westerns, The Power of the Dog melds the moody visual poetry of Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven with the hardscrabble realism of Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller. That Campion’s film fares admirably when held up against those two nineteen-seventies masterworks should be endorsement enough. Here’s another, though: Campion is a significant enough filmmaker, equipped with uncommon insight and fearlessness, that even a flawed film towers over titles treated like treasure at the multiplex.