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Jane Campion’s masterful ‘Power of the Dog’ had a fascinating and much maligned precursor

‘Power of the Dog’ owes a debt to Campion’s ‘In the Cut,’ the film that took down Meg Ryan

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Heavy spoilers for “The Power of the Dog” ahead.

Trusting the wrong man can get you killed.

That’s a lesson two characters learn the hard way in “The Power of the Dog,” internationally acclaimed director Jane Campion’s first feature in more than a decade and one of the most lauded films of the year.

Midway through the hard-to-categorize period piece — a quasi-romance bursting with mountain vistas and dread-laced suspense set in 1920s Montana — it’s Kirsten Dunst’s Rose, a retreating widow, who finds herself having misplaced her hopes in her new rancher husband, George (Jesse Plemons, Dunst’s real-life partner). Doting and well-off, George initially seems to be an ideal match, but she can’t count on him to stand up to the bullying ways of his older brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), with whom the couple share an isolated, dark-wooded mansion. Delicate and melancholy, Rose withers under Phil’s harsh gaze, turning to drink to escape his belittling taunts and lingering presence, until she can hardly stand to leave her bed.

The second half of the film asks whether Rose’s son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), will also fall prey to Phil, especially once the college student, snappable as the twigs that litter the ranch, figures out that, like himself, the hypermasculine cowboy is gay. (In early scenes, Phil burrows deeper into the closet by mocking facets of Peter’s undisguised effeminacy, such as his lisp and his penchant for making paper flowers.) Almost as soon as Peter learns of Phil’s homosexuality, Phil knows that Peter knows, imbuing their next few scenes with apprehension. When George informed his brother of his intentions to marry Rose, an angry Phil beats a horse, hurling misogynistic slurs at the animal clearly intended for his future sister-in-law. With an even bigger threat looming — the collapse of a mask he’d spent a lifetime constructing — there doesn’t seem to be a limit to what he would do to preserve it.

‘The Power of the Dog’ belongs to Benedict Cumberbatch, who brings menace and grief to the western film

Like so many Campion films before it, “The Power of the Dog,” an adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name, doesn’t go where you think it will. But it’s somewhere she’s taken us before, in the 2003 erotic thriller “In the Cut.”

Widely panned upon release and sporadically championed in recent years by feminist critics, Campion’s screen translation of Susanna Moore’s novel is perhaps best remembered by mainstream audiences, if it’s remembered at all, as the racy film that killed Meg Ryan’s career. (“The reaction was vicious,” America’s erstwhile sweetheart recalled in a 2019 interview.) But from the vantage point of 2021, “In the Cut” is not only a whip-smart and masterfully atmospheric subversion of its genre, but a fascinating precursor to “The Power of the Dog” in its themes and evocation of sexual unease.

If the classic erotic thriller — “Fatal Attraction,” “Basic Instinct” — channels male fears of female sexuality, “In the Cut” takes inspiration from a far more grounded anxiety: female fears of male sexual violence. Ryan plays Frannie, a high school English teacher in New York City, where the mutilated corpse of a murdered woman is found near her cramped, overheated apartment. A serial killer appears to be on the prowl, but Frannie is far more distracted by the possible peril posed by the men in her life: an unhinged cafe acquaintance (Kevin Bacon) who stalks her after they sleep together twice, a flirtatious student (Sharrieff Pugh) obsessed with clearing John Wayne Gacy’s name, an attractive homicide detective (Mark Ruffalo) investigating the case whom Frannie suspects of lying to her at every turn during their fling. Full of odd sights and potential attacks, New York is where Frannie — a curious, eager-to-absorb, independent woman — and her man-hungry sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh) are supposed to find love. Then Pauline trusts the wrong man.

“In the Cut” is Campion’s most visually experimental film, with the New Zealand native eschewing her signature shots of the natural grandeur of her home country — delivered most expressively in “The Piano” (1993) and the TV series “Top of the Lake” (2013) — for woozy, dreamlike cityscapes with jittery handheld camerawork and shadowy, soft-focus cinematography. It captures an insomniac’s version of New York, which is to say the claustrophobic metropolis occupied by Frannie, who can’t be sure whether her paranoia about the dangers of men is irrational or simply self-protective.

Campion and Moore’s script notes how our culture has inured us to stories of femicide. When Frannie’s class complains about the dullness of Virginia Woolf’s “To the Lighthouse,” she asks, “How many ladies have to die to make it good?” Rejoins a student, “At least three.” There’s something fantastical yet ludicrously familiar about the notion of a night with a stranger that could end with either a kiss or a kill.

The inherent risk of trusting a romantic prospect has long been a feminine (and feminist) pop-cultural concern. From Bluebeard to “Bridgerton,” countless stories hinge on the gamble that is saying yes to a man. In “The Power of the Dog,” that risk emerges much earlier in the courtship process, with Phil having to trust Peter that his sexuality, along with the true nature of the cowboy’s idolatry of his mentor Bronco Henry, will be kept safe. Phil — the first male protagonist in Campion’s filmography — is stuck in a quandary not unlike Frannie’s. Like her, he idealizes love, remembering Bronco Henry as part of a bygone generation of “real men” and attributing all his ranching success to his deceased lover. And like her, Phil’s both the smartest person in every room and utterly blind to the dangers that surround him, including the predator hiding in plain sight.

Rewatching “In the Cut” — and the rest of this singular oeuvre, as I’ve done for “All About Campion,” the podcast I host with Daniel Schroeder — it’s impossible not to feel like the movie industry has yet to catch up with this visionary auteur. In 2003, Ryan was lambasted for 1) appearing nude and 2) appearing nude as a 40-year-old woman. But there’s a deliberate explicitness and specificity to the sex acts in that film that underscore the director’s decades-long interest in depicting female pleasure. Campion, whose career crested with the rise of the erotic thriller and has far outlasted it, has striven for what Hollywood has been strangely loath to do: develop characters through sex.

With “The Power of the Dog,” Campion reaches a new apotheosis, in part by breathing new life into her recurring themes, motifs and images by transporting them to a relatively novel context. The oppressive clouds of misogyny ever hovering over her protagonists not only menace Rose and the effete Peter, but force Phil, who has a Yale degree in classics, into near-parodic displays of rugged, working-class masculinity. Campion’s care and delight in portraying female sexuality finds compelling counterparts in the cowhands’ casual homoeroticism on the riverbank and Phil’s tender, grief-infused scenes of self-pleasure with Bronco Henry’s scarf — tableaux that stand out all the more for how rare it is still to see such gently unselfconscious male sensuality on-screen.

And, of course, there’s the undercurrent of potential violence that gives “The Power of the Dog” its sustaining thrills — the one aspect where “In the Cut” falters rather badly (and thus where its detractors had a point). Like so many of the central pairings in Campion’s films, tension builds until the frisson between a duo erupts in sex, violence or both. But in “The Power of the Dog,” Campion shows a sly restraint that’s notably mature and deeply satisfying. At last, she’s found a character who won’t take the risk of trusting the wrong man, however steep the cost.