The story turns on what happens when George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widow with a teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee, who evokes the young Anthony Perkins of “Psycho”). Phil sees Rose as an opportunist and writes a letter of complaint to his parents, whom the brothers, more comically than fondly, refer to as the Old Lady and Old Gent (Frances Conroy and Peter Carroll). It’s a childish move, but in keeping with the infantilism that still shapes the brothers’ uneasy relationship and their awkwardness with outsiders, particularly women. Before Rose, the only other women at the ranch are a bosomy older cook and a girlish helper, both conveniently sexless.
When Rose first enters the Burbank house, Campion meaningfully pictures her in its gloom, the character’s pale face flickering like a weak light. “The Power of the Dog” is a story of the Intermountain West, a sun-blasted realm of cowboys and wide-open spaces, desolation and self-reliance. With the arrival of Rose and Peter, the story also becomes something of a female Gothic, one of those eerie stories about women in suffocating domestic spaces haunted by ghosts (literal and otherwise) and a-swirl with repressed desire. In “Jane Eyre,” the heroine enters a home with a madwoman whose husband has locked her in the attic; Rose is soon troubled by other malevolent forces.
“The Power of the Dog” is based on a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, a closeted gay man whose critically acclaimed fiction drew on his formative years living and working on a Montana ranch. The book is a novel of the West, and in an afterword written for a reprint, Annie Proulx observes that “something aching and lonely and terrible of the west is caught forever” in Savage’s pages. The book predates by decades Proulx’s tragic love story “Brokeback Mountain,” about two hired hands, Jack and Ennis, who discover each other one summer in 1963 while herding sheep. They have sex and fall in love while believing themselves “invisible.”
Campion, who wrote the screenplay for “The Power of the Dog,” has pared the story down to its essentials, initially building on a series of oppositions, some starkly visible, others more covert. Phil is tall, rangy and dresses like a cowboy, complete with soiled hat and chaps. George is squatter, rounder, and given to wearing suits even on horseback. Phil is a great talker, when he chooses, and has a razor-sharp tongue, with many of his most lacerating comments directed at his brother. For his part, George tends toward quiet, using as few words as possible, including when he’s being goaded by Phil, who derisively calls him Fatso. Phil is alpha to George’s beta. Phil is also unspeakably cruel.