MOVIE "The Power of the Dog"
WHERE Streaming on Netflix
WHAT IT’S ABOUT The year is 1925 and the place is Montana — somewhere between the Old West and the modern era. The Burbank brothers, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons), have used their college educations and family wealth to build a prosperous cattle-ranching business. George, well-groomed and good-hearted, manages the money; Phil, coarse and calloused, wrangles the animals and a crew of mangy cowhands. It’s an all-male world, which suits Phil just fine.
This peaceable arrangement begins to unravel when George marries a widowed innkeeper, Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), who arrives at the ranch with her slender and sensitive teenager, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee, "The Road"). It's hard to say which of them disgusts Phil more, but his resentment grows by the day. Phil makes it his business to break both their spirits — and possibly do worse than that.
MY SAY Bullwhips, branding irons and silk handkerchiefs — "The Power of the Dog" is one deeply kinky and very dark Western. Based on a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage (not to be confused with Don Winslow’s 2005 book of the same name), "The Power of the Dog" ripples with thwarted sexuality and creepy symbolism. It’s fertile ground for writer-director Jane Campion, a longtime fan of dysfunction and primal rage ("Sweetie," "The Piano," the miniseries "Top of the Lake"), and a terrific showcase for Cumberbatch, who plays one of the most complex characters ever to hit a screen.
Toxic masculinity is too simple a label for what’s roiling inside Phil. Schooled and essentially raised by a legendarily macho cowpoke named Bronco Henry — never seen, only reverently talked about — Phil has grown into a grotesquerie of manhood, which is to say a bully. He calls his brother "Fatso," mocks Peter in a lisping voice and preys on Rose’s insecurities. He shuns fancy clothing, refuses to bathe ("I stink and I like it," he says) and chugs whiskey as if it cured weakness. To say more about Phil would be to spoil one of this film’s great pleasures — the slow drip-drip-drip of revelations that bring the character into clearer focus.
Cumberbatch plays the role like a human prism — we see him differently depending on which side he’s showing — but this cast is uniformly excellent. Dunst makes Rose believable even when the character develops an only semi-convincing drinking problem, while Plemons carefully balances George’s innate goodness and willful blindness. Equally impressive is Smit-McPhee as Peter, a willowy, doe-eyed intellectual who may have more in common with Phil than either would like to admit.
The closest comparison to Campion’s unusual chiller-Western may be Don Siegel’s "The Beguiled," from 1971, which was also based on an overlooked novel (coincidentally published around the same time as Savage’s). That film, starring Clint Eastwood as a Civil War soldier who stumbles into a schoolhouse full of women and stirs up a caldron of desire, is almost a gender-reversal of this one. Both feel like cautionary tales about sexual frustration boiling over in dangerous ways.
"The Power of the Dog" may not move quickly enough for some viewers, but it also keeps transforming into a different movie. Broken into chapters, it starts as a nicely observed period piece, darkens into a psychological drama, then becomes an exercise in dread. (Jonny Greenwood’s score, full of plucked or swelling strings, heightens the moods.) It’s a slow build to a powerful ending, one that satisfies and mystifies all at once.
BOTTOM LINE Cumberbatch crackles with menace in a supremely creepy Western.