There’s something archaic about westerns. That’s not just because they’re set in the past, but also because they’re so stripped-down and elemental: Have horses, will travel — and travel to some surprising places. In that sense, westerns are like something even more archaic: Greek tragedy — have gods, ditto.
The overlap between the two can be felt in “The Power of the Dog.” When we learn that Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, a rancher, was a Phi Beta Kappa classics major at Yale, it sounds crazy. It also makes perfect sense. This man understands Greek tragedy even as he enacts it.
Phil, Cumberbatch’s character, and his younger brother, George (Jesse Plemons), run their family’s Montana ranch. “The Power of the Dog” is less distant in time than a standard western. It’s 1925, so the ranch has indoor plumbing and central heating. There’s talk of “the moving pictures” and “the Victrola record.” The characters live in the past, but we forget at our peril that that past was their present — and a present that at times must have felt like an encroaching future.
This sense of temporal dislocation deeply informs Jane Campion’s film. (There’s physical dislocation, too, though it’s not revealed until the closing credits: “Power of the Dog” was shot in her native New Zealand.) Campion both wrote and directed, adapting the movie from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel. Campion’s best-known films (the remarkable “The Piano,” 1993; “The Portrait of a Lady,” 1996) are not just set in the past but summon it up with a rare capacity to make viewers feel a sort of displacement from the present. She does that here, too.
The dislocation is emotional and familial as well as temporal. George is amiable and conciliatory. Phil is all tense menace: someone who keeps his spurs on indoors. He’s kin to another protagonist of a latter-day western, Daniel Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview, in “There Will Be Blood” (2007). That Jonny Greenwood, who did the fine score here, also wrote the music for that film adds to the sense of similarity. “I will drink your milkshake,” Plainview famously announces. Phil’s preference would be to spill the milkshake and then spit into it.
The depth of Phil’s darkness emerges when George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst). He responds to his younger brother’s happiness with rage, jealousy, and incomprehension. That is very ancient Greece — or Old Testament. The phrase “the power of the dog” comes from the 22d Psalm.
Rose, a widow, has a son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). When they first met, before George was engaged, Phil took a dislike to Peter. Now he becomes the focus of Phil’s cruelty. Peter’s pronounced effeminacy draws the mockery of all the ranch hands. But there’s something more complicated going on with Phil.
You keep expecting something very bad to happen, and something very bad finally does, though it’s not what you likely anticipated. The ending departs from the one in Savage’s novel, which may account for why it feels slightly worked up: part switcheroo, part comeuppance. The unsettling tension that has been developing almost from the start gets released with a suddenness, and neatness, that feel false.
Ari Wegner, who shot the wildly different “Zola,” makes the sere, yellow hills and vast sky look beautiful. “Dog” cries out to be seen on the big screen. (Now playing at the Coolidge and Kendall, it starts streaming, on Netflix, Dec. 1.) And the visual appeal is not just a matter of landscape. The sight of the ranch hands’ chaps flapping as they walk down a dusty street is definitely an oh-my moment. But the beauty we see is in no way showy. It’s there for a reason. The sweeping light and open spaces cast into heightened relief the overall sense of personal darkness and confinement of feeling.
The movie begins and ends with Smit-McPhee. Plemons plays the most winning character. And Dunst gets the most to do expressively. But Cumberbatch dominates the film. Those narrow, narrow eyes of his could be slits in a gun turret. The jaunty upturn of his Stetson’s brim makes the man’s malevolence appear all the more potent. Phil wants to dominate everyone else. Cumberbatch actually does.
THE POWER OF THE DOG
Written and directed by Jane Campion; based on a novel by Thomas Savage. Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee. At Coolidge Corner, Kendall Square; starts streaming on Netflix Dec. 1. 125 minutes. R (brief sexual content, nudity)
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.