Esteemed director Jane Campion’s latest release must be categorised as a western, but it is a western that gives a slight twist to the tropes and conventions of the cowboy story, revising and plays with them in often unexpected ways. The film is based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage and adapted by Campion herself. Streamlining the tale and removing some of the back story without losing any of its intensity as a psychological drama, one that sets up familiar masculine archetypes and views them from unfamiliar directions. The mood is established by the very first onscreen image as two young bulls butt heads before being finally separated and driven away by a much larger adult, who, in turn, pushed aggressively between them.
Set in the 1920s, the film begins with an array of quintessential western characters: ranchers, managing a cattle range in the picturesque hills of Montana, a backdrop used to great advantage throughout the film. The ranch is owned and actively managed by the Burbank brothers, Phil and George, both bachelors approaching middle age. The two brothers could not be more different. The novel sums the characters up by saying, “Phil had been the bright one, George the plodder.” Phil is indeed bright: he had gone away to university as a young man, and even after coming home and taking up ranch work, he was noticeably clever. George is plump, docile, and mild-mannered; he is the brunt of his brother’s jokes but is also helpful, as the one who takes care of the business side of ranching. Their relationship, and their mismatched personalities, are the starting point of the story.
Benedict Cumberbatch dominates the screen as Phil, a gruff, stern man who is almost a caricature of the firm, plain-spoken cowboy. He seems to revel in overt masculinity, taking pride in working the range and doing some of the rougher jobs himself, exerting quiet dominance over the ranch staff as well as over his own brother. He enjoys hunting, camping, and traditional men’s handicrafts, such as rope-making – a skill that becomes significant as the plot develops. His overt manliness even leads him to disdain the most basic amenities, such as bathtubs, choosing instead to only wash in the property’s creek. The closest he ever comes to sentimentality is when reminiscing about his former mentor, an expert outdoorsman known as Bronco Henry, whose saddle is enshrined in the stables. His brother, George (Jesse Plemons), tolerates rather than enjoys Phil’s treatment of him, a mixture of affection and scorn. The brothers’ interactions, their very different relationship with the ranch employees, and the delicate power balance between them is handled with great subtlety and skill by the director, getting across Phil’s complex personality and George’s vague dissatisfaction clearly without undue explanations.
The plot expands when the entire ranch drives cattle to town for sale, staying overnight at a small hotel. The kitchen and dining room are managed by Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widow with a teenaged son. The son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McKee), a bright student with hopes of becoming a doctor, is slender, unimposing physically, and gentle in manner. He immediately becomes a target for Phil, who savagely and publicly mocks the boy, implies he is effeminate, sets fire to one of his decorative crafts to light a cigar, and otherwise plagues him throughout the meal as the other cowboys laugh appreciatively. George, however, finds his brother’s actions cruel. He seeks out the widow to apologise, finds her weeping over her son’s humiliation. This leads, eventually, to George courting her and finally making an offer of marriage, to Phil’s amazement and outrage. Phil barely conceals his fury when George returns to the ranch already married, bringing his new bride along with him.
From here, the film escalates from a western featuring personal conflicts, to something more sinister altogether. Rose, although feeling distinctly out of place in the unfamiliar environment of a cattle ranch, tries to make herself at home and be friendly toward the ranch hands and the two kitchen maids. Phil, however, refuses to accept her presence. He begins a quiet, systematic campaign of gaslighting, ridicule, sabotage, and denigration that slowly wears her down. In an underhanded and cold-blooded persecution, he destroys her peace of mind and leaves her a psychological wreck, managing it all without his brother being any the wiser. It is a chilling development, and Kirsten Dunst brings across Rose’s vulnerability and gradual decline perfectly.
Is all this detail a spoiler? Not really, because George’s marriage and Phil’s sadistic victory only set the stage for the complicated second half of the story, which begins when Rose’s son, Peter, comes to stay at the ranch while school is out. From this point, the characters are repeatedly shown from different angles; events have to be reconsidered in light of new information; presumed motivations must be reevaluated. The final act becomes a mystery in which characters’ intentions can be interpreted in various, sometimes ominous, ways. Even more fascinating is the way in which the filmmaker begins to play with the viewer’s assumptions. Actions, words, missing items, and minor accidents, things that seemed trivial, begin to take on greater significance. Most of all, it becomes less clear just who is the threat and who is the victim, whether certain characters are really as strong or as weak as they appear. Only at the surprising conclusion do all the carefully arranged pieces fall together and make sense.
The movie is visually striking, using the impressive Montana scenery effectively, both for its beauty and to help tell the story or set a mood. Even the ‘dog’ of the title refers to a canine shape that can be picked out in the distant cliffs. The more mundane interiors and shots of the ranch contribute to a scene’s atmosphere as well, using lighting and camera angles to enhance the feeling of comfort or dread or mystery, as the case may be, thanks to the work of established cinematographer Ari Wegner.
The cast is well-chosen, Cumberbatch’s angry, haunted, obsessively masculine Phil definitely the centrepiece, but the ensemble cast contributing greatly to the film’s success. Jane Campion’s script is brilliant and absorbing, at once a stinging character study and a mystery that maintains its suspense until the final second. It is a compelling and unusual reimagining and repurposing of the classic western drama.