Sometimes Benedict Cumberbatch feels like a behemoth movement. Since accumulating acclaim and swarms of fans from his smash-hit show Sherlock, the Academy Award-nominated actor has been one of the UK’s biggest acting exports. Cumberbatch is good at what he does; intellectual men with some sort of “mental quirk” that no one wants to properly diagnose for fear of wrath. It’s fine but his more interesting performances come outside of this typecast – a kindly cousin, a vengeful assassin, and a greedy dragon highlight his versatility because it strips him back to just becoming these characters, rather than acting as them.
As Phil Burbank, in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, for a little while you are fully away that this is Benedict Cumberbatch, despite dirty, bow-legged gruff cowboy costume. Then, as Phil glowers tauntingly at his younger brother George (played softly, and somewhat absently by Jesse Plemons) the actor is gone and the character is allowed to live on screen. It’s Cumberbatch’s finest role to date.
Based on a novel by Thomas Savage, The Power of the Dog revolves around two brothers who have taken over an old family ranch following their parent’s retirement. George is a quiet spirit who moves underneath the shadow of his intimidating and gruff brother Phil. A chance stay in a small town’s hotel leads the brothers to widower Rose and her son Peter. Surrounded by his peers, Phil is quick to demean the boy but George finds himself smitten with Rose. A few courting weeks later, and mother and son have moved in with George and, much to his chagrin, Phil. However, the oldest brother is not about to let this slight go and soon, all four must spar for dominance.
While there is a heavy thought in the back of your mind that Cumberbatch has been terribly miscast in the role, that does not mean that he isn’t very good. In fact, he is phenomenal. Phil isn’t a dumb ranch owner who stays in the muck because that’s all the world has deemed him good for. In fact, the film makes several points that Phil is Yale educated and so smart that people seek his conversation. That icy mind becomes key to manipulating and tormenting Rose – played greatly here by Kirsten Dunst. He doesn’t have to hit her or raise his voice too loudly. In fact, an underhand is used and its bruises smart longer, and scar deeper. Cumberbatch does this so well that when new themes to Phil are unlocked over the five different acts, so is Cumberbatch too is upper-tier talent unleashed.
So, whilst it takes a while to ease into Cumberbatch’s new britches, when his characters gets more complex through the course of the film, the actor melts into the role. As Phil tightens the rope, his propped-up persona unravels. There is a troubled man underneath that pelt and burnt hide and it is perhaps one of Cumberbatch’s best performances.
Saying that, however, Cumberbatch is overshadowed by the emerging and brilliant Kodi Smit-McPhee. As the kindly Peter, Smit-McPhee somewhat starts as this pincushion – a gentle medical student who spends his time making paper flowers and drawing. He is rocked emotionally by Phil’s harsh remarks and further enraged by the step-uncle’s mentally intimidating behaviour towards Rose. Instead of standing-by and watching Rose come undone, who, alas, has given into booze to cope with the weariness of Phil’s ways, Peter plays the game. But in a gentle and tactile way, opposing Phil’s rough demeanour.
Smit-McPhee has an outstanding command of Peter’s emotional make-up and intellect. The film soon becomes a power-struggle of toxic masculinity and unearthed secrets as Phil and Peter duel for the upper-hand. Perhaps not with clenched fists and physical fights, but certainly in their behaviours as they both manipulate their settings for their most favoured outcome. Watching Smit-McPhee and Cumberbatch make these dark moves, a chess game beneath underneath their pretences, makes Campion’s film an astonishing accomplishment in acting.
For The Power of the Dogto succeed, Campion must rely heavily on characters and, thusly, the actors. However, alongside the brilliant cinematographer Ari Wegner, this brooding Western is also striking to look at. Enormous, monstrous shadows gobble the mountainous landscape. Icy snow walls upon the barren buildings of rural America. Animals make dust trails that billow into the sky. It is visually impactful. Especially when there is a focus on male bodies, from the rugged ranch hands to the cleanliness of George as he tries to schmooze with the upper classes. Even Peter’s loose jeans and neat white shirt are examined through Campion’s lens. As the film thematically breaks down what it means to be man, so it does through its naked, uncovered imagery.
The most remarkable moment involves a silk handkerchief that delicately grazes an unbridled body, free from their own imagined restraints and a world of prejudice. It’s a sequence that is haunting and moving, especially after the revelations that follow.
The Power of the Dog is a curious thing. It says so much within the gaps between dialogue and with Jonny Greenwood’s burgeoning score. It burns with lost love and loneliness. It slices deep into masculinity and the toxicity that comes with it. It is Jane Campion on top form.