True West: Jane Campion’s ‘The Power of the Dog’ runs deep, with unforgettable performances

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SIBLING RIVALRY Benedict Cumberbatch (left) and Jesse Plemons ride herd in ‘The Power of the Dog.’

Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog is one of 2021’s best movies—intelligently written and masterfully directed, with a near-perfect cast and a compelling story line that verges on the mythological while keeping its dusty boots firmly on the earth. But really it could use a disclaimer in its advertising, something on the order of: “Please don’t watch this film thinking you’re in for a typical Western. There’s nothing typical about it, at least by ordinary entertainment standards.”

That should be fair warning for prospective audiences who see the cowboy-hatted image of Benedict Cumberbatch on horseback and think they’re in for a violent spectacle of lust and mayhem on the range. Not happening here. This is a Campion film, from the maker of The Portrait of a Lady, The Piano and Sweetie. Campion could no more make a True Grit than, say, Carl Theodor Dreyer could manufacture a grisly, histrionic horror show out of The Passion of Joan of Arc. Writer-director Campion has her own ways of following the twists and turns of human fate.

On a Montana ranch in 1925 live the Burbank brothers: mild-mannered George, also known as “Fatso” (Jesse Plemons), and stern, taciturn Phil (Cumberbatch), who can rope strays or castrate bulls all day without breaking a sweat. Also on the Burbank ranch dwells a widow named Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), who runs a café and guest house with the help of her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), an awkward, wispy teenager who would rather press wildflowers into his notebook than shoot wolves, and prefers white tennis shoes to manly boots. In Campion’s adaptation of Thomas Savage’s novel, tensions—of the sexual identity and relationship variety—develop among these two families as they make the best of their less-than-ideal situations.

The rhythms here are relaxed and naturalistic to an almost distracting degree. The characters move through their scenes and recite the sparse dialogue slowly and deliberately, as if Campion’s Wild West tale were a motion picture from the early 20th century—something by Victor Sjöström or F.W. Murnau. In fact, we can easily visualize this as a silent. What ambient sounds there are occur without the over-engineered production gloss most of us are used to—for instance, the on-location echoes off bare-wood surfaces in Mrs. Gordon’s restaurant.

The performances have a similarly unvarnished flavor. Cumberbatch plays the most complicated character, the perennially unsatisfied Phil, a man who cannot begin to relate to others because he hasn’t yet learned to fully understand himself. And yet he is capable of nourishing someone else’s aspirations. Close behind Phil, in the Misunderstood Derby, is Dunst’s Rose, the eternal lonely widow, self-medicating with whiskey and resigning herself to a ringside seat as spectator of her own life. Cumberbatch’s and Dunst’s acting jobs alone are worth the ticket price, but Smit-McPhee steals the film as the mooncalf Peter, growing before our eyes into the type of guy who used to be called “faggot” or “Nancy,” before he got his grown-up act together.

Campion follows these three main protagonists—Plemons’ George is almost an afterthought—with a lyricism usually missing from most contemporary film dramas. Without our realizing it at first, Campion and company’s seemingly routine love triangle pivots and glides into 19th-century philosophical turf, heralded by its title, borrowed from Psalm 22:20: “Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog.”

Every cliché is avoided. Each nuance of personality is carefully tended to. We learn that we can’t judge a person’s soul by the expression on their face. Rabbit symbolism is set free on the Montana High Plains—shot on location in New Zealand, Campion’s home ground. Dunst is one of Hollywood’s premier character actors. Cumberbatch gives us shadings of personality that transcend “real life.” And The Power of the Dog is some sort of miracle.

In theaters from Nov. 17, on Netflix from Dec. 1.