I was almost two hours into this smouldering Western from writer/director Jane Campion when I scratched into my critic’s notebook the urgent question: “What is Phil’s game?”
That’s the heart of the mystery at the centre of this story, based on the 1967 novel The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage, and set even further back, on a cattle ranch in Montana at the dusty end of the 1920s.
Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Phil Burbank, one of a pair of wealthy but somewhat uncouth brothers who own and operate the ranch. The other one, decidedly more couth than his sibling, is George, played by Jesse Plemons.
The brothers’ very unalike temperaments are on full display in an early scene in which they and their workers stop at an inn for food and lodging. Phil makes great sport of the young waiter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) for having a lisp and an effeminate manner. George hangs back to comfort the lad’s widowed mother (Kirsten Dunst) and does such a thorough job that he winds up marrying her.
Phil doesn’t take kindly to the widow Rose, or to her son Peter, who is studying to be a doctor. In fact, he doesn’t seem to take kindly to anyone, with the possible exception of “Bronco” Henry, a mysterious cowboy friend of his who died some 20 years earlier. Phil has been dining out on stories of Bronco’s manly exploits ever since.
Campion’s tightly crafted tale explores all manner of masculinity, upending more than a few of our expectations along the way. (Case in point: Peter’s affinity for wild rabbits.) Phil seems to go out of his way to be boorish, cultivating an uncultivated nature, a study in coarseness. Though a few dropped hints suggest he may have been the more erudite brother back in their school days; this despite the fact that he now refers to Rose’s favourite instrument as “the pinano.”
There’s some lovely period dialogue in keeping with the Western setting. “You got a sore gut?” Phil barks at his brother in an early scene. “You act like it pains you to hitch two words together!”
Circuitous language extends even unto the film’s title, a Biblical quotation that reads in full: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.” That’s the King James version; most translations says something along the lines of “spare my precious life from these dogs.” But I like the hanging “darling,” which gives the phrase an oddly intimate tone.
And I love the casting that went into this tale. Cumberbatch, his American accent well oiled and broken in after some rough starts, is just about perfect in the role of a brilliant brute. Smit-McPhee, so skinny he looks like he’d need suspenders to keep his belt up, hints at hidden depths.
And while I’m on the record as saying Plemons can do no wrong, let’s confirm that he has yet to prove me wrong. Meanwhile Dunst (his real-life partner, by the way) provides some necessary feminine energy, though the psychological bullying she takes from Phil is painful to behold, and drives her to drink.
Campion lets her camera roams the open landscape – her native New Zealand subbing for Montana, though you’d never know it – and does a lovely little trick with the light, letting us see the hills through one character’s eyes, then another’s. The Power of the Dog is one of a handful of Netflix titles getting a theatrical release ahead of its streaming debut. Catch it on the big screen if you can, but do catch it.
The Power of the Dog opens Nov. 17 in Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, and Dec. 1 on Netflix.
4.5 stars out of 5