These preoccupations informed her masterpiece, The Piano (1993), the story of Ada McGrath, a mute woman sold into marriage by her father and shipped—along with her piano—to a jungle plantation in nineteenth-century New Zealand, where she is inserted into the dark struggles of two men, her new husband and his plantation manager. Showcasing the unforgettable image of men hauling a grand piano through the jungle, Campion depicted both women’s silencing and women’s power vis-a-vis the violence of men, even as it drilled down to the erotic energies surging beneath the surface of Victorian propriety. The film was Fitzcarraldo meets Heart of Darkness, turned to feminist purposes. Elective muteness; dismemberment and murder; a game of sexual thrall cued by black keys on a piano: if credible storytelling was sacrificed to trenchant metaphor, or even parable, viewers swept along by the poetic power of the film didn’t much care. The movie snagged three Oscars and remains broadly viewed as the greatest film ever made by a woman. “From a distance, The Piano seems too preposterous for words,” Anthony Lane wrote in the New Yorker—then noted that “as Ada knows all too well, words merely get in the way.” Describing the film as “inches away from caricature,” Lane commented that “a confident director can persuade you of anything,” and praised The Piano as “so rich in strangeness that the whole movie feels like a voyage.” Whatever its faults, he said, “you just want to look.”
You just want to look: the same holds true for The Power of the Dog, an early favorite among this year’s Oscar contenders. Set in the Rocky Mountains of a century ago (though actually filmed in New Zealand), the movie is nothing if not gorgeous. Already in Angel at My Table, Campion had begun to use landscape as presence and formative force—a use she perfected in The Piano, where the dense jungle setting amplified the sense of enclosure and steamy threat.
The new film has a burnished look, both sumptuous and stark. Ari Wegner’s camera captures scenes of evocative beauty: a lonely prairie graveyard; a herd of cattle kicking up dust clouds; a train steaming across flatlands below massive snowy foothills. Add to that images of decaying wealth captured in a sepulchral, Miss Havisham–like mansion plunked down in the middle of the prairie, and such striking visuals as a woman climbing out of a Model T before a majestic mountain panorama to teach her husband to waltz. Such vivid tableaux—regardless of their dramatic uses—have a stirring life of their own, sometimes in a weirdly Sound of Music way. You keep expecting people to burst out singing.
Or murdering. Against the backdrop of natural beauty, Campion orchestrates a parade of human cruelty. The story—taken from Thomas Savage’s eponymous 1967 novel—studies Phil and George Burbank, two wealthy brothers running their family’s Montana ranch. In this Cain-and-Abel setup, George (Jesse Plemons), who manages the business side of things, is ponderous and kind, while Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), who runs the ranch hands and leads the cattle drives, is lithe and loud, with a lambent streak of cruelty. Phil’s wounding sarcasm includes crass derogations of his brother, whom he contemptuously calls “Fatso,” and intensifies when George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a recently widowed innkeeper, and moves her and her teenage son, Peter, into the brothers’ mansion.
While Phil’s hostility ostensibly reflects suspicion about Rose’s designs on the family wealth (“You’re just a cheap schemer!” he accuses her), his invective seems to emanate from a deep well of what we would call toxic masculinity, an acrid mixture of misogyny and homophobia. Seizing on the effeminacy of Peter, he incites mockery of the boy among the ranch hands, ridiculing him as “Miss Nancy” and at one point taking a decorative paper flower Peter has made for a dinner party and lighting it on fire. To sharpen the shaming, Phil invokes the legendary figure of Bronco Henry, a long-dead cowboy who taught the Burbank brothers horsemanship—and set them up with prostitutes—and whom Phil worships as the embodiment of manliness. Campion depicts Phil as a slow-burning fuse, capable of igniting male violence at any time—for instance, in the crowded dining room of Rose’s inn, where cowboy carousing fueled by alcohol sets Rose on edge, requiring George to defuse things as Phil glowers.
Despite its epic Western setting, The Power of the Dog is more parlor than prairie, a Tennessee Williams–like chamber drama that draws its carefully calibrated interactions into a tight knot, creating a No Exit level of interpersonal tension. Here “hell is other people” reflects not the arrival of some notorious outlaw galloping in at high noon, but rather the lacerating gibes of one’s brother or brother-in-law. In one memorable sequence, Phil mocks Rose’s halting attempts to play a piano melody by forcibly accompanying her on the banjo, using his vastly superior skill to humiliate her. Credit Campion with successfully portraying a musical duet that plays like an act of sexual violence.
The roles in this complex of types are superbly acted all around. As Phil, Cumberbatch oozes insolent menace, and can make the act of licking a just-rolled cigarette drip with insinuation. Jesse Plemons’s George is the inverse, a stolid, lumbering combination of pity and humility. Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) exudes frail vulnerability, yet his latent intelligence and habitual secrecy promise surprises. Dunst’s Rose is fretful and weak, afflicted with shuddering abhorrence at Phil and increasingly beating a shamed retreat into alcohol.
Campion exploits these archetypal contrasts via studied juxtapositions. We see George, in his bowtie and bowler hat, driving by in a newfangled automobile as Phil, in chaps and Stetson, skins an animal. Or Peter trying on tennis clothes in a store with his mother—as Phil castrates a bull. Familiar dichotomies of nineteenth-century frontier America are emblemized in the Pete/George/Rose vs. Phil antagonism: on the one hand, beauty, art, cities, gardens, sneakers, manners, femininity, cars, pianos, tennis, the drawing room; and on the other, horses, boots, dirt, knives, rowdy violence, blood, wilderness, erotic power, the saloon.