In a tradition of breaking tradition about Westerns, Power of the Dog disrupts the classic idea that ranching promotes John Wayne qualities of strength, self-sufficiency, and manliness. With elements found in Track of the Cat and Brokeback Mountain, Power of the Dog shows a wild and lonely landscape that allows disfunction to thrive.
The title’s dog refers to both a place and person—a geologic formation in mountains and a rancher named Phil. Phil judges people by their ability to see a running dog in a nearby range. Most fail, and he believes this partially justifies the scorn and hatred he feels for pretty much everyone. This contempt comes to a head when his younger brother arrives home with a new wife and her effeminate teenage son.
Following the pattern of source material in a 1968 novel by Thomas Savage, director Jane Campion maintains a slow and literary sensibility. Rather than reveal information with quick, blatant scenes, she parcels out key bits in a format that includes chapter headings and assumes that a viewer who demonstrates patience and pays attention will stick it through to the end for an oddly satisfying though not particularly nice finale. Campion includes many elements of foreshadowing, like when the bullying rancher destroys paper flowers near a character named Rose.
Campion surrounds her screenplay with perfect choices in appearances. Striking cinematography and strong performances from Benedict Cumberbatch and the rest of the cast provide dramatic intensity. Those unfamiliar with Cumberbatch’s star making turn as a modern-day Sherlock Holmes may think the British actor grew up on a Montana ranch given his flair with cowboy lingo and activities like riding horses or castrating bulls.
As a counterpoint, Kodi-Smit McPhee catches the sensitivity of an artistic and frail young man who seems like the ideal target for a homophobic bully. With equal skill, Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons suit their roles in looks and manner. Since landscape also plays a part in events, Campion enhances the atmosphere by using vast and undeveloped vistas from New Zealand, which steps in as Montana of the 1920s. Putting all this together, the film gains its power from a mix of fine production values and solid but unsettling psychological insights.