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Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog

Benedict Cumberbatch in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog (2021)

Having garnered some of the best reviews of any film premiering in competition in Venice, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog now heads to Toronto,New York, and London. Benedict Cumberbatch has been startling reviewers with his turn as Phil Burbank, a rancher in 1920s Montana. This is “a career-best performance from Cumberbatch, by turns sly and blistering, which perhaps feels all the more extraordinary since it’s hard to imagine him even being cast in the first place,” writes the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin. “Phil is the kind of inwardly roiling, mercurial fiend you can imagine being immortalized by Jack Nicholson in the 1970s.” Cumberbatch, “that child of Harrow, makes a decent clenched fist of his role,” agrees the Guardian’s Xan Brooks. “If you can believe him as a hard-bitten western thug, castrating cattle one-handed and lassoing mustangs in the yard, then Campion’s battle is already half-won.”

So far, only Sophie Monks Kaufman, writing for Little White Lies, finds that Cumberbatch strikes “the only false note in Jane Campion’s otherwise immaculate adaptation” of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel. At the Film Stage, David Katz describes Phil as “an articulate monster—a bully and a brute who sadistically revels in punishing his supposed intellectual inferiors.” He idolizes his long-departed friend, Bronco Henry, who taught him how to ride and rope. And he refuses to bathe. He’s proud to wear the stink of his labor. “Phil’s notions of what a real man ought to be are both rigid and wrong-headed, and he inflicts them on those around him like snake venom,” writes Time’s Stephanie Zacharek. “If your latent-homosexuality alert hasn’t gone off yet, it may be time to calibrate the settings.”

Phil runs the ranch with his stocky and reserved brother George (Jesse Plemons), who is pointedly first seen scrubbing down in the tub. On a cattle drive, George meets Rose, a widow played by Kirsten Dunst, who “does depressive fragility with consummate grace,” as Owen Gleiberman puts it in Variety. They marry, and Rose arrives at the ranch with her teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), “an effete early twentysomething undergrad who tiptoes into the mud-smeared surroundings like a sickly, gangly cherub,” as Leonardo Goi describes him in the Notebook.

In Peter, Phil smells wounded prey. He jeers at the kid and encourages his ranch hands to join in—until Phil unexpectedly takes Peter under his wing. “Both Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee feed the ambiguity over whether hardened Phil has opened himself up to genuine affection or is playing a vicious game,” writes the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney, “and whether Peter, who has more intelligence and human understanding than anyone gives him credit for, has discovered an affinity with the older man or is manipulating him.” There are scenes here “that are some of the tensest I’ve experienced in some time,” writes Glenn Kenny at RogerEbert.com.

At Film of the Week, Guy Lodge finds that The Power of the Dog is “about feeling literally unsafe in your own skin, and the compromises and denials we make to anesthetize that fear. As a sparse tale of frontier justice and survival in a scarcely civilized stretch of America, it bears comparison with films like There Will Be Blood and McCabe & Mrs. Miller, the theater of Sam Shepard, or the literature of William Faulkner.”

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