In Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, audiences are treated to what is unquestionably the performance of Benedict Cumberbatch’s career, alongside a handsome and engrossing film of sprawling Western vistas contrasted with the simmering tension of its characters’ inner lives.
Based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, Cumberbatch utterly convinces as Phil Burbank, an alpha male cattle rancher in 1920s Montana, charismatic and yet cruel towards his softer brother George (Jesse Plemons) and George’s new wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst).
He saves the most vicious of his barbs, however, for Rose’s son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), an introverted and effeminate teenager he takes to calling ‘Little Miss Nancy’.
Against the backdrop of an unforgiving and isolated landscape – but with the comforts of money and class – Phil thrives as a forceful and natural-born leader, relishing being a contrarian in his (lack of) hygiene habits and tormenting Rose with his banjo twanging. Not only do these lead to enjoyable and unexpected moments of comedy, but they also serve to deepen the subtext and emphasise Phil’s homophobic torment as he grapples with the pain of his past and his present feelings.
With the atmosphere remaining taut throughout its two-hour runtime, The Power of The Dog’s slow-burning plot allows you to second-guess its characters’ intentions and actions throughout. This is used to a particularly surprising effect in a scene involving the quiet Peter and a rabbit (you have been warned).
A rich and detailed character study for each of its excellent four leads – and especially Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee, who is an admirable scene partner – The Power of the Dog brings everything you’d expect, and hope for, from the writer and director of The Piano. The film is like watching a play, so focused is it on the minutiae of seemingly small human actions and emotions, and so nuanced in its story-telling.
However, it also balances well with the epic feel lent to it by its New Zealand landscapes (standing in for Montana), eerie soundtrack by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood (There Will Be Blood, Phantom Thread) and tense undertones.
The Power of the Dog’s tragic ending is somewhat changed from the original story, and left tantalisingly vague for audiences – a decision in keeping with its subtlety throughout. As with many films that embrace a more ponderous pace, the film does sag slightly in the final 20 minutes or so as it teases audiences to its rather abrupt climax.
The Power of the Dog is essential viewing for cinema fans, a brilliant example of a non-Western Western and another stellar entry in award-winning Campion’s canon.
It should also well and truly silence Benedict Cumberbatch critics for good. The standard has been set for the 2022 Academy Awards.
The Power of the Dog will be released in cinemas on November 19 before arriving on Netflix on December 1.
Credit: Original article published here.