It’s hard to describe the brutality and deliberate cruelty that’s embodied by the central character of Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog.”
Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) co-owns with his brother George (Jesse Plemons) a cattle ranch in 1920s Montana. Phil oversees the cowhands and the cattle, while George oversees the books and other less flashy matters.
While driving cattle across Montana one day, Phil and George and the cowhands stop by the Red Mill hotel for a meal of fried chicken. Running the restaurant is Rose (Kirsten Dunst), who’s a widow with a teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Peter is helping serve the cowhands when Phil notices a paper flower sitting on the table. And when he finds out that Peter has made the flowers for the tables, he not only mocks the decorations but sets one flower afire.
Days later, George returns to Red Mill and asks Rose to marry him. She agrees, and her arrival with her son Peter at the Burbank ranch sends Phil into a silent rage — and launches his effort to torture Rose and her son psychologically.
In one particularly venomous scene, Rose is practicing on the piano downstairs, in the hopes of being able to play at a reception for the Montana governor. But she’s not that good and keeps stopping midstream. Phil, who is upstairs, gets out his banjo and plays the rest of the musical piece with flair, silently mocking Rose’s fumbling and demonstrating his superior skills.
Rose is no match for Phil, and she begins to stay in bed with a bottle of bourbon underneath the sheets. Phil, meanwhile, seems to think he has defeated Rose and turns his attentions to her son, Peter.
Peter may look like an effeminate wallflower to Phil, but he has a piercing intelligence that seems to size up his mother’s antagonist for what he is: a bully, but something far more sinister.
While trying to show Peter the ropes to the ranch’s workings, Phil begins to wax nostalgic about his dead mentor, Bronco Henry. In fact, Phil has a memorial to Bronco in the barn, where Bronco’s saddle has a prominent spot.
When Phil asks Peter whether he wants to sit on the saddle, even the most clueless moviegoer will get the eerie feeling that something more was happening between Phil and ol’ Bronco.
Secretly, Peter starts following Phil and discovers a hidden swimming hole that Phil used to share with Bronco. Peter also finds other mementoes.
Let’s just say that Peter is no fool. He knows Phil’s secret — and the reason that he’s such a despicable human being.
Campion directs “The Power of the Dog” with her usual flair, diving deep into a four-person psychodrama playing out on the American frontier. It’s the first western for the New Zealand native, and she uses the country’s South Island as the setting for her new film.
The island is not only gorgeous but also a perfect stand-in for old Montana, with miles and miles of untouched wilderness.
Campion turns to Grant Major, the production designer, to build the sets for the Burbank ranch from the ground up. She also enlists the aid of Ari Wegner, the director of photography, to capture some of the most stunning landscape shots in recent movie history.
But Campion’s main achievement is in lassoing Cumberbatch for the role of the main character, Phil. Cumberbatch had never worked on a ranch before and spent quite a bit of time learning how to ride a horse, castrate a bull, braid a rope and walk and talk like a cowboy.
Cumberbatch’s most startling achievement, however, is how he gradually reveals the rot in his character’s soul, while simultaneously helping to explain it to the viewer. As Cumberbatch says in the press notes, Phil is “somebody who’s utterly in control of his world and the people in it, but there’s this thing that’s out of his control that the world has denied him. That’s part of why he’s the way he is, why he is so savage about his circumstance and the people in it.”
That’s a hard emotion to convey on screen, but Cumberbatch and Campion pull it off in spades.
If you’re wondering where all of this darkness comes from, the movie is based on a novel by a Montana writer, Thomas Savage. “The Power of the Dog” derives its title from the Bible, Psalm 22:20: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.”
When Peter turns to that phrase in the Bible, you’ll begin to understand who’s the darling and who’s the dog in this powerful tale of twisted sexual repression.
The movie opens in Austin theaters on Nov. 19, and will begin streaming on Netflix Dec. 1.