Producers: Jane Campion, Tanya Seghatchian, Emile Sherman, Iain Canning and Roger Frappier   Director: Jane Campion   Screenplay: Jane Campion   Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie, Genevieve Lemon, Peter Carroll, Alison Bruce, Keith Carradine and Frances Conroy   Distributor: Netflix

Grade: B+

New Zealand writer-director Jane Campion, whose career has been erratic since her early successes (“Sweetie,” “An Angel at My Table,” “The Piano”), returns strongly to form with this adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel.  Propelled by a remarkable performance by Benedict Cumberbatch, “The Power of the Dog” is a visually gorgeous examination of cruelty motivated by hidden desire and retaliation driven by an impulse to protect. 

Set in 1925 Montana (though actually shot in Campion’s homeland), the film centers on Phil Burbank (Cumberbatch), who runs the family ranch with his brother George (Jesse Plemons), their parents, whom they call with a mixture of affection and sarcasm The Old Gent (Peter Carroll) and The Old Lady (Frances Conroy), having retired to town, leaving the rambling mansion to the boys. 

The siblings are a study in contrast.  Phil is a sturdy, hard-nosed cowpoke, embodying the lessons learned from his revered mentor, the late, legendary Bronco Henry.  He earned a classics degree back east and refers to himself and George early on as Romulus and Remus, but Cain and Abel might be more appropriate, given that the title is borrowed from the Book of Psalms (“Deliver my soul from the sword, My darling from the power of the dog”).  And whatever life he might had led in college, back home he revels in the dirt of the landscape and the pitiless rituals of cattle-raising, scrupulously saving the hides so that he can braid tough rope from them. 

He is also unremittingly brutal in his judgments and caustic in his observations, free to offend and ready to bully—a man who doesn’t seem to be happy unless he has someone to abuse, and doesn’t seem particularly happy even when he’s abusing somebody.  That includes quiet, punctilious George, whom he calls Fatso.  George keeps the books and wears a suit even when on a cattle drive.  He gets little respect from the ranch hands, who look up to Phil and dote on his memories of Bronco Henry.  The brothers’ relationship appears to have changed little from childhood: they even share a bedroom.  One senses that Phil always pushed the younger George around, and George has just learned to accept it. 

Things change radically, though, when on a cattle drive the crew stops at an inn run by the recently widowed Ruth Gordon (Kirsten Dunst).  Phil presides over the table imperiously while George helps in the kitchen, taking special aim at Peter (Kodi Smith-McPhee), Ruth’s tall, gangly son, who serves as waiter and has made paper flowers for the dining room—which Phil takes delight in burning and dosing in water.  He sneers at Peter as a mincing pansy, and the men join in.

Kindly George, however, finds Ruth charming, and issues a marriage proposal, which she accepts, much to Phil’s disgust.  He sees her as a cheap gold-digger, and after she moves into the ranch house, lets no opportunity pass to demean her, especially during a dinner with George’s parents and the governor and his wife (Keith Carradine and Alison Bruce), where he sabotages George’s plan for her to play the piano for the guests by interrupting her practice with his banjo music.  His observation that she’s started drinking provides further ammunition for his assault.

Thus far the film has, to a great extent, emphasized the struggle between primitivism and culture, the individual and society, which has been a prevailing theme in Campion’s work (the symbolism of the piano recalls that of her earlier film), as well as a not-so-subtle take on macho misogyny: when Phil gets irritated with his horse, he beats it with a bridle and screams “Whore!”  But when Peter enters the picture for a stay during his summer vacation from boarding school, the narrative takes a different focus.  Phil initially treats him with contempt as a momma’s boy, the apple of Ruth’s eye, and he and the hands deride his prissy ways.  Peter, whose desire to become a surgeon leads him to a fascination with animals, and even dissect dead ones, accepts his mistreatment with eerie serenity.

Two things happen to change the relationship.  On one of his rambles through the countryside, Peter finds Phil’s private bathing hole, and with it a secret Phil has long hidden (but, from his attitudes, an astute viewer will have suspected).  And Phil decides that the boy is worth befriending, both because he shows an aptitude for interpreting the landscape differently from other people (a trait he shares with Bronco Henry), and because there might be a practical benefit to get close with him and drive a wedge between him and his mother.  So Phil teaches the boy to ride and help in ranch work, and as a sign of his avuncular interest promises to braid a rope for him by summer’s end.  When distraught, drunken Ruth responds by selling his hides to Indians, Peter placates the furious Phil with a gift that calms and moves him, but also proves that manipulation can work both ways.

A tone of fatalism and foreboding runs throughout “The Power of the Dog”—along with a current of simmering sensuality that’s felt in Campion’s cultivation of the tactile sensation of touches to the skin, whether human or animal.  When the final revelation of the plans the various characters have for one another, and the motivations that underlie them, arrives, it may not be entirely unexpected but it does carry a wallop.  

Cumberbatch inhabits Phil with a fullness that’s remarkable, creating a figure who’s frightening and not a little horrifying, but he’s part of a strong ensemble.  Dunst conveys the arc of Ruth’s decline compellingly, and Smit-McPhee cuts an almost ethereal, otherworldly figure.  Plemons has the difficult job of being the oasis of calm and composure amid the sea of emotion raging around him, but navigates the waves with aplomb, while Genevieve Lemon and Thomasin McKenzie add spice as the Burbank’s salty housekeeper and her younger assistant Lola.

The visuals are marked by deceptively voluptuous, dangerous landscapes, a production design by Grant Major that mixes stark exteriors with elegant interiors, and evocatively convincing costumes by Kirsty Cameron, all captured beautifully in Ari Wegner’s atmospheric widescreen images.  (The habit of filming characters from a distance through open doors and windows suggests the chasms between them, and may remind you of the famous last shot of John Ford’s “The Searchers.”)   Jonny Greenwood’s score reflects the turbulence roiling beneath the surface.

Campion is a filmmaker who has always appreciated ambiguity, and some viewers may be puzzled by the film’s enigmatic elements, particularly in the last act, where Peter Sciberras’ editing conspires with her approach to keep connections vague enough to require some work from the viewer.  Even the title, with its multiple meanings, might defy easy explanation, though for that one must blame Savage rather than her.  But the effort to come to grips with the characters’ shifting, seething purposes and cunning schemes brings major rewards.

And Cumberbatch’s performance is mesmerizing.