Benedict Cumberbatch re-confirms his chameleon-like qualities, giving one of his finest screen performances yet in a very unlikely role in Jane Campion’s new Netflix-backed film, The Power of the Dog. The ever-versatile British actor here plays Phil, a rugged, brutal, dirt-encrusted American cowboy who wears boots with big stirrups and never washes. “I stink and I like it,” he declares at one stage.
The deeply layered film, adapted from Thomas Savage’s novel, is set in the early 20th century. Phil runs a ranch with his brother George (Jesse Plemons). The siblings are close but Phil is appalled at George’s decision to woo and wed Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widowed former cinema pianist. “If it’s a piece of ass you’re after, I’m damn sure you can get it without a licence,” he sneers. Even worse in his eyes than Rose is her gawky, effeminate young adult son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil taunts the boy relentlessly and encourages the ranch hands to do the same.
This is a very sly and deceptive affair. It starts like an old Howard Hawks western but, as it deals with repression and yearning, edges ever closer to the world of Campion’s earlier, New Zealand-set period piece, The Piano, or even of Brokeback Mountain. In most cowboy films, the protagonists are one-dimensional, but none of the characters here ever behave in the way you anticipate they will.
Phil doesn’t speak so much as grunt and rarely uses words of more than one syllable. However, he is far better educated than he lets on. Dunst’s Rose seems like one of those strong-willed frontier women who can withstand any misfortune but has hidden frailties. Peter is a sensitive and artistic adolescent who paints beautifully and whose ambition is to become a doctor, but he is also cunning and sometimes very cruel.
There are many deliberately jarring moments. Dunst, the star of Working Title romcom Wimbledon earlier in her career, gets to play one of the stranger games of tennis in recent cinema history. The Jonny Greenwood musical score adds to the edgy atmosphere. Nobody here is at all at ease in their own skin. Campion is exploring different types of male behaviour and finding most of them very wanting. George craves respectability. He wants to lead a tidy, ordered middle-class life. Phil, meanwhile, behaves in absurdly macho and boorish fashion because he is terrified of what he will discover if he looks too far inside himself.
At times, the storytelling is so nuanced that the film threatens to stall. As a viewer, you want the catharsis of a gunfight or a saloon bar brawl. Campion, though, deliberately avoids big dramatic set pieces. She is dealing with violence and sexual longing but in a very subtle and oblique way. All the characters’ feelings here are very deeply sublimated. The fascination of The Power of the Dog lies in its ambiguity and its depth of characterisation. Nothing is obvious here, not even the title.
The Power of the Dog’ is released on Netflix on 1 December
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