It’s been a long wait for a new Jane Campion film — her transcendent love story “Bright Star,” about the poet John Keats, came out in 2009 — but sometimes waiting makes a gift feel even more special. Nobody makes period films quite like Campion, a master of atmosphere and nuance, and “The Power of the Dog,” set in 1925 Montana, shimmers with anticipation in every frame. You have no idea where this story is going, but you’ll follow Campion’s vision anywhere.
Based on a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage (it’s been tossed around Hollywood for a while; at one point, Paul Newman optioned it), “The Power of the Dog” is a Western thriller, with a strange triangle at its center. Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a man of wealth and power who owns a ranch with his milder brother George (Jesse Plemons), but at heart he’s a cowboy: speaking in a voice like cracked leather, walking as if he’s still on horseback, more comfortable riding the range than sitting at a table. And he’s got a cruel streak, as sharp as the knife he carries, which he applies to the widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her gentle teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). George comforts Rose and finds himself in love with her; soon, they are married and Rose arrives at the brothers’ longtime home, to Phil’s consternation (he calls her “a suicide widow and her half-cooked son”). All of this happens in the movie’s early scenes: The table has been set, and a feast of cat-and-mouse tension can be served.
Majestically filmed by cinematographer Ari Wegner (“Lady Macbeth”), with New Zealand standing in for Montana, the film unfolds like the mountain views surrounding the ranch house: beautifully ominous and ever-changing, a story altered by a difference in the light. Cumberbatch, transforming himself into an American archetype, is mesmerizing — listen to the multiple shades of meaning he brings to a mockingly whistled tune, and watch as director and actor slowly reveal more colors in the character’s portrait. Dunst, as sweet, shy Rose, is all softness; though this single mother has an inner strength, Phil has a remarkable way of whittling that away, and Dunst lets us see Rose’s petals fading in the sharp mountain sunlight. Plemons, in a more reserved role, conveys awkward kindness, and Smit-McPhee, all spidery teenage arms and legs, shows us a quiet boy who loves his mother — and who wonders, in an opening voice-over, what kind of man he would be if he did not save her.
Things happen in “The Power of the Dog” that we don’t see, and what we do see carries extra meaning: the way a braided rope looks like a snake; the quiet rebuke of George’s empty, strapped-bare twin bed in the room he once shared with Phil; a spot of red blood on the endless yellow grasses. Jonny Greenwood’s plaintive score seems to be asking the questions the characters can’t. It’s a unique ride of a movie, beautiful and disturbing and haunting — in other words, it’s a Jane Campion film. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait 11 years for the next one.