Set in the gorgeous wide open expanses of 1925 Wyoming, The Power of the Dog from Oscar-winning director Jane Campion (The Piano, Angel at My Table) is downright suffocating a lot of the time. This sure to be in the Oscar pool psychological thriller/western tells the story of a pair of rich ranching brothers, Phil and George Burbank, who are as different as night and day. Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch, TV’s “Sherlock”, The Courier) is the walking embodiment of toxic masculinity, violent and mean to everyone in his path. George (Jesse Plemons) is more gentle and less rugged. But when he marries the local widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst, Spiderman, Melancholia) and brings her and her teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Road, X-Men franchise) home, Phil is anything but the welcoming brother-in-law, leaving no opportunity behind to ridicule them all.
Whether it’s Phil’s violent presence or her first taste of living in luxury making her feel unmoored or her fear for her son, Rose turns to the bottle. Her son Peter is effeminate and his first encounter with Phil is before they even come to the ranch. Phil and his rough band of cowboys come to town to sell some cattle and eat in Rose’s restaurant, where Phil mocks the paper flowers Peter made for the tables and takes pleasure in hurting him. But Peter is not so easily wounded and once at the ranch, after a settling in period where Phil takes pleasure in making sure Rose and Peter know they are interlopers, he and Phil establish a détente. But then more surprisingly Phil makes the effort to take him under his wing.
But that suffocating feeling I was mentioning? You’re never sure what Phil has in mind. You’re holding your breath wondering where it will lead. [Spoiler alert] And as it becomes obvious that the man who was Phil’s mentor, Bronco Harry, was much more than that to him, an erotic tension surfaces between him and Peter. But is he setting a trap to hurt the boy again? Or is this going to be a Brokeback Mountain trajectory?
Cumberbatch is simply amazing in the role. Apparently he went full method, not bathing for days, giving himself nicotine poisoning to be faithful to the character, and even refusing to speak to Kirsten Dunst during the whole production. And it paid off. At the beginning he’s very easy to hate, being so misanthropic and base, but as you get to know him, he’s a much more complex character, and that makes him even more unsettling. I see an Oscar nod for him, and also for the film. It’s not a movie for everyone by a stretch. There are lots of slow moments and there’s violence to animals. But every performance is top notch. The music is fabulous. The cinematography with New Zealand standing in for Montana is superb. And the script keeps you on the edge of your seat from beginning to the end. Watch it if you’re going to be betting in the Oscar pool, or if you’re looking for a great and unexpected drama.
[Mainstream Chick’s take: I understand all the kudos for the film. The direction, cinematography and performances are superb. But as Arty Chick points out, this is not a film for everyone. Meaning folks like me. 😉 It’s just not the ‘escapist fare’ I tend to favor. I’m glad I saw it though and certainly wouldn’t begrudge it awards-season love, especially for Cumberbatch. I just saw the guy reprising his role as Dr. Strange in the latest Spider-Man flick and was reminded just how versatile an actor he really is. If you’re going to be participating in any Oscar pools this year, you’ve got to at least give it a try– especially if you have Netflix. -hb]
In theaters in limited release on Nov. 17th and streaming on Netflix Dec. 1st.