He may not be a savage killer like Henry Fonda’s Frank or Lee Van Cleef’s Angel Eyes, two of the most iconic villains in the Western genre, but Phil Burbank played by Benedict Cumberbatch, in a career-high, is a ruthless a-hole, to say the least.

The character is the driving force in Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage. In many ways, the film resembles a rustic version of the director’s 1993 Palme d’Or and Oscar-winning “The Piano” notwithstanding the musical instrument’s prominence. Both are period dramas with themes of repressed sexuality, oppressed female protagonists, and a challenged progeny. Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Kodi Smit-McPhee round out the superb performances in one of the best films of the year.

The story takes place in 1925 Montana where for the last two decades brothers Phil (Cumberbatch) and George (Plemons) have been riding side by side on cattle runs while overseeing the daily operations of the largest ranch in the valley entrusted to the siblings by their parents (Peter Carroll and Frances Conroy) who abandoned rural life to become city-dwelling socialites. Not much has changed at the old homestead, including the fact that the brothers still sleep next to each other on twin beds in the same room they’ve shared since childhood. That’s about to change.

Enter Rose (Dunst), a widow who owns The Red Mill restaurant, run with the help of her effeminate and soft-spoken teenage son Peter (Smit-McPhee). He’s a bit naïve and innocent — the kind of kid who doesn’t realize when he’s being ridiculed — yet he’s not withdrawn. His character arc is one of the most intriguing elements of the film alongside Cumberbatch’s Phil.

One day Rose is asked to prepare dinner for Phil, George, and their ranch hands. Peter makes paper flowers as place settings to spruce up the old wooden eatery and plays the role of waiter, donning a napkin draped over one arm. The evening turns into a disaster after Peter’s appearance seems to offend Phil’s masculinity, “I wonder what little lady made these?” he deliberately asks knowing that Peter made the artificial blossoms. Later he ends up burning the paper flowers and nickname’s Rose’s son, Ms. Nancy Boy. Both Rose and Peter are brought to tears by Phil’s cruelty. This doesn’t sit well with George who later returns to the Red Mill to apologize for his brother’s behavior. He begins to pay regular visits to Rose, helping her around the restaurant, the two fall in love.

The difference between the Burbank brothers is akin to night and day. George is refined, wears tailored suits, and drives a car. He listens intently and isn’t riled by Phil’s malice which includes being called Fatso. He handles the business aspects of the ranch. Phil is the muscle. He castrates bulls with his bare hands, bathes occasionally in a nearby creek, braids rawhide rope, and fills the men with machismo tales of his mentor Bronco Henry while resembling a caricature of the Marlboro Man. Yet Phil is a complex character. He may act like a dumb cowpoke, but he attended Yale, has a brilliant mind, and he’s an expert musician.

Cumberbatch has played the villain before, but you’ve never seen the English actor in a performance like this. Just when you think you’ve got Phil figured out, Campion zooms in for a close up throwing the audience off as the look in Cumberbatch’s eyes signals an inner struggle that helps cloud the character’s true intentions.

As the story progresses George asks Rose for her hand in marriage which infuriates Phil who insinuates she’s only after his brother’s money. The tension in the film rises drastically when Rose moves into the Burbank homestead. George, who’s often away on business, gifts his new bride a beautiful piano. Phil begins to antagonize her, strumming on his banjo, while she practices her playing. Dunst is terrific playing the victimized housewife who’s met with a cold shoulder each time she attempts to be kind to “Brother Phil.” It’s grueling watching her collapse into a downward spiral as she becomes an alcoholic.

Another layer is added to the multi-faceted story when Peter returns from med school to live on the ranch during his break. Appearing like a young Tom Mix with his signature white ten-gallon hat, the soon-to-be-surgeon may still resemble that naïve young man who broke down in the restaurant under Phil’s scrutiny, but he is not, and this is where “The Power of the Dog” soars under Campion’s direction, a master storyteller.

Phil suddenly has a change of heart and begins to take “Pete” under his wing. He gives him riding lessons and teaches him the cowboy way of life while passing on stories of Bronco Henry, the greatest cowboy that ever lived. Rose becomes worried that Phil has bad intentions and is manipulating her son, but George assures her that Phil is being sincere. The audience is left hanging, not sure what to believe.

Paul Dano was originally cast in the role of George which would have given the film an entirely different vibe. He’s a good actor but Plemons who reminds me of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman is perfect in the role of Phil’s brother. He delivers a sublime performance that derives its strength from Plemons’ ability to downplay his portrayal which in turn lends an air of gravitas to the role.

The wildcard in the cast is Kodi Smit-McPhee who turns out to be the film’s MVP. The Australian actor who is known for playing Nightcrawler in the X-Men films gives his strongest performance to date as the coming-of-age Peter. Like Plemons, he derives strength with his less-is-more approach to a role.

Beautifully captured by cinematographer Ari Wegner who transforms New Zealand’s grassy plains and rocky mountains into a stunning substitute for Montana and featuring a driving score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood, whose compositions can also be heard in “Spencer” and the upcoming “Licorice Pizza”, Jane Campion’s return to feature films in over a decade is a cinematic triumph about salvation whose title comes from the bible’s Psalm 22:20, “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.”

(4 stars)

Now showing at the Landmark Inwood Theater and available on Netflix December 1st

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Joe Friar

Member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Latino Entertainment Journalists Association (LEJA), the Houston Film Critics Society, and a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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