Flawed but utterly mesmerising, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog demonstrates her mastery of filmmaking.

By Christos Tsiolkas.

The Power of the Dog

Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank in The Power of the Dog.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank in The Power of the Dog.

This review contains spoilers.

In Jane Campion’s new film, The Power of the Dog – adapted from Thomas Savage’s tense, unsettling 1967 novel – Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons play brothers Phil and George Burbank. Set in Montana in the mid-1920s, the siblings are co-owners of a cattle ranch and, although they are entering middle age, still sleep together in the same room. Phil is belligerent and distrustful, whereas George is gentle and taciturn. When George falls in love with Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widow who runs a boarding house, he proposes and brings her and her son, Peter, to live with him and George at the ranch.

Peter, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, is a fey young man, and his indifference to conforming to masculine stereotypes infuriates Phil. He is equally outraged that Rose has won the heart of his brother. With his narrow, hateful view of women, he believes that all she cares about is their money. When Phil realises Rose is an alcoholic, he sets about forming a friendship with her son, knowing that the amity will hurt Rose. But the young man, who possesses remarkable intelligence and intuition, proves to have a streak of cruelty that mirrors that of his step-uncle.

It is easy to see why the source novel so attracted Campion. In earlier works, such as The Piano, In the Cut and her adaptation of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, she is fascinated by questions of dominance and submission, and of how sexual desire informs social relations. She is a phenomenally talented filmmaker – I still recall seeing her first short films, Peel, Passionless Moments and A Girl’s Own Story, and being gobsmacked by her control and undoubted mastery of film craft.

Reviewing Jaws, the great film critic Pauline Kael quoted an older film director who said of Steven Spielberg, “He must never have seen a play; he’s the first one of us who doesn’t think in terms of the proscenium arch. With him, there’s nothing but the camera lens.” That seemed true for the young Campion. Often her dissection of perversity and fetishism has the hallucinatory power of nightmares.

However, if Spielberg’s Achilles heel as a filmmaker proved to be his sentimentality, Campion’s shortcoming has often been her aloofness, a sense of cynical detachment that too often makes her characters seem like pawns. This suited the paranoid thriller In the Cut, where the characters were consciously playing dangerous psychosexual games with one another. I think it’s less successful in The Piano and the James adaptation: the cynicism overwhelms the films and I found my attention waning, ultimately disbelieving both the characters and the narratives. Yet there is an undeniable potency even in her weakest work. I remember nothing of the human relationships in those two films, but images of the wild New Zealand coast in the former, and of a dissipated, aristocratic Florence and Venice in the latter, are still vivid in my imagination years afterwards.

Shot in New Zealand, The Power of the Dog has an abundance of cold beauty in its framing and in Ari Wegner’s magnificent cinematography. Campion’s confidence as a filmmaker is such that from the opening scenes she can pay homage to the classical formalism of John Ford, with the interplay of interiors against exteriors recalling his great works, The Searchers and My Darling Clementine, while at the same time imbuing the film with her own distinctive vision. The Gothic ranch house set in a barren and formidable wilderness also recalls Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, and there are also echoes of that film in the perverse excesses of the relationships. Yet again, the references don’t seem arch or overdetermined. This is a conscious reimagining of the western film, making explicit the sexual repression, heterosexual and queer – as well as the patriarchal and colonialist values – that underpinned the notion of the “western hero”.

For the first half or so, I found myself fighting an antipathy to Cumberbatch. That isn’t a dislike of the actor himself but, rather, of his being cast in the role of Phil. He is meant to be a malicious representation of that traditional hero, but I couldn’t take him seriously in the role. It’s an unfortunate aspect of film and television that actors become so identified in our imagination with particular roles that we find it difficult to accept them when they assume different personas. Of course, when an actor’s talent shatters such a prejudice it is electrifying: contemporary examples include Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain and Kristen Stewart in the work she has done with Olivier Assayas. Unfortunately, this doesn’t happen with Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog. The shadow of his delightfully wry, upper-class Sherlock Holmes clings to him throughout most of the film.

Of course, it can be argued that Campion wants to use our collective sense of Cumberbatch’s persona to illuminate the restrictive, tragic force of repression. Phil has to exaggerate his meanness and virility in order to hide his homosexual longings. He too is acting. Yet the troubling power of Savage’s novel exists in how we understand that Phil’s immersion in his limited view of masculinity is so deeply embedded that his violent homophobia and misogyny are as intrinsic to him as his longings and secret desires. Cumberbatch’s performance is valiant, but we never quite believe him. There is a pivotal scene where he punches out his horse. It’s distressing, as is any moment of violence to an animal, but we don’t experience it as a shock. Campion’s detachment undermines her work: she reduces Phil to a stereotype and we feel nothing for his pain.

Dunst, too, is miscast. Again, I don’t think you can separate the actor’s performance from how the role has been conceived. Rose is the most tragic figure in the original novel, but there is a waspishness and a dissolution to her character that is missing from the film. The story is set in the Prohibition-era Midwest, but the characters don’t have the stark, almost emaciated, severity that is so striking in photographs from that period. The script constantly refers to Phil being dirty, how the land has seeped into his face and body, yet we don’t see that visualised on the screen. Equally, Dunst’s appearance gives us no sense of the hardship of being a publican.

That is a problem, too, in the representation of the ranch hands that form a sympathetic chorus to Phil’s most outrageous behaviour. These young men are too pretty, with no suggestion of sweat and grime. They are as unreal as the posed models on the covers of the fitness magazines that Phil keeps hidden.

Yet for all these casting missteps, The Power of the Dog is anchored by the frightening, mesmerising performance of Smit-McPhee as Peter. Long-limbed, astonishingly thin, he conveys a feline sexual grace in the smallest of his movements. We understand the confused emotions he stirs in the men. The actor communicates the subterranean crosscurrents of contempt and desire that are at play in his seduction of Phil. The covert sexual play between the youth and the older man is erotic but disconcerting, and Campion’s direction is at its most assured. In the denouement, when we begin to understand the extent of Peter’s vengeance, we are truly shocked.

One of the most unfortunate aspects of contemporary criticism is that we are often locked into assuming an assessment of a film can be relayed in the number of stars we give it, whether it attracts a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down. It has long been my contention that such simplistic notions can’t do justice to a film or to the intentions of a filmmaker. The Power of the Dog is getting a limited theatrical release before coming to Netflix. I urge readers to see it on the big screen if they can, because the film looks ravishing. More importantly, it has a compelling intensity that is most effective in the charmed intimacy of a movie theatre.

It’s a flawed film and much of it doesn’t quite persuade. Yet the inconsistencies don’t diminish its mesmeric power. Campion recognises that even when we want to reject the old myths, we may still be seduced by them. 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 20, 2021 as "Cold beauty".

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