LONDON: There’s something a bit discombobulating about watching Benedict Cumberbatch swaggering through the Montana mountains in “The Power of the Dog” — the latest movie from New Zealand director Jane Campion. Some of the British actor’s most notable performances, remember, have him as a man of extraordinary precision and poise; characteristics that are a long way from his portrayal of rancher Phil Burbank. That said, such a sense of slight discomfort only serves Campion’s movie, helping to build a sense of something not quite right at the heart of her adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 Western novel, set in 1925.
Phil and his brother George (Jessie Plemons) run a successful ranch. Phil is the practical one, turning his hand (or knife) to anything that needs doing and building an easy rapport with the ranch hands. He calls George ‘fatso’ all the time, and mocks his brother’s aspirations of climbing the societal ladder.
When George marries widowed inn owner Rose (Kirsten Dunst), Phil suspects she’s only after his money. And when Rose and her oddball, effeminate son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) come to live at the ranch, Phil turns outwardly hostile to the pair of them, driving Rose to drink and taunting Peter’s academic pursuits and lack of wilderness skills. Phil offers to take Peter under his wing, teaching the boy to ride and urging him to ‘man up’ and throw off the influence of his mollycoddling mother.
Cumberbatch plays Phil with such sophisticated menace that we’re never sure if his interest in Peter is benevolent, or part of a more sinister plan. Smit-McPhee, also, imbues Peter with such eccentricity that it’s never clear how genuine his foal-like innocence really is — an ever-present unknown that Campion skillfully wields throughout the movie’s long runtime.
“The Power of the Dog” is also staggeringly beautiful, with the rolling hills of New Zealand standing in for Montana and providing breathtaking backdrops to the story’s very human dynamics. While the final act drags its feet ever so slightly, the film remains a stylish masterclass in slow-burn character development.