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Rugged masculinity takes a dark turn in 'The Power of the Dog'

Benedict Cumberbatch is the picture of rugged American masculinity in <em>The Power of the Dog. </em>
Benedict Cumberbatch is the picture of rugged American masculinity in <em>The Power of the Dog. </em>

The great New Zealand writer-director Jane Campion has long been acclaimed for her films about the complex inner lives of women, notably in 19th-century dramas like The Portrait of a Lady, Bright Star and especially The Piano. Her tense and gripping new movie, The Power of the Dog, thus marks something of a departure. It stars a superb Benedict Cumberbatch as a 1920s Montana rancher named Phil Burbank who's the very picture of rugged American masculinity.

Phil seems at one with the land and all its living creatures, whether he's riding a horse, leading a cattle drive or bathing in a muddy river. He's also a sadist, a fascinatingly conflicted monster, and one of the scariest characters you're likely to meet this year.

The movie, which Campion adapted from a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, looks a lot like a Western, full of somber gray skies and craggy vistas that are magnificently shot by the cinematographer Ari Wegner. But it's more like a tightly wound psychological thriller that just happens to play out on an epic canvas, and it's full of secrets and surprises that it's slow to reveal.

We first meet Phil and his brother, George, played by Jesse Plemons, who's his opposite in every respect: gentlemanly, polite, neatly dressed. The two run a ranch together and get along fine for the most part, with George genially absorbing every casual insult, like "fatso," that Phil throws his way.

But everything changes one evening when they're traveling with their men and stop for dinner at an inn. They're served by the owner, Rose Gordon, played by Kirsten Dunst, and her son, Peter, played by the Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee. As they're being waited on, Phil sneers at the intricately cut paper flowers decorating the table, which Peter made, and then mocks the boy's neat and precise manners.

Rose is devastated by Phil's humiliating attack on her son, and George, who knows all too well how cruel his brother can be, is there to comfort her. They soon fall in love and marry. It's worth noting that Dunst and Plemons are a couple in real life, which makes the tenderness of their on-screen marriage all the more touching.

George proves a considerate and generous husband, even paying for Peter to attend medical school. But he's unable to protect his new wife from the wrath of his brother. When Rose moves onto the ranch, Phil dismisses her as a gold digger and launches a vicious campaign of psychological abuse, driving Rose into depression and alcoholism.

The Power of the Dog really hits its stride in these moments; nothing overtly terrible happens, but the emotional violence that Phil inflicts on everyone in his midst is brutal to watch. Campion draws out the tension with exquisite subtlety, aided by an unnerving score by Jonny Greenwood and by four actors who could not be more ideally cast.

Few performers can break your heart like Dunst, whose face becomes a landscape of pain as all Rose's initial happiness drains away. Plemons is sympathetic as the decent but ultimately helpless George. In some ways the most intriguing character here is Peter, who eventually returns home from school to visit his mother and once more becomes a target of Phil's scorn. But Smit-McPhee's watchful, intelligent presence suggests that Peter is a more formidable adversary than he appears.

Before long, Peter and Phil strike up an odd sort of friendship, with Phil teaching Peter how to ride a horse and other cowboy rites of passage. But both men's motives remain ambiguous.

Cumberbatch has always been a marvelous actor, but he simply outdoes himself here. It's remarkable how easily this elegant British heartthrob, known for playing brainy types like Sherlock Holmes, Alan Turing and, yes, Doctor Strange, slips into the boots and spurs of a man of the Old West. But without giving away too much, there are deeper, more subversive layers to Cumberbatch's performance that feel consistent with Campion's past explorations of gender.

It's been 11 years since Campion made a new movie, though in the meantime she's co-written and co-directed two seasons of the crime drama series Top of the Lake. It's wonderful to have her back making gorgeously unsettling psychodramas in which the wildness of her landscapes matches the inner turbulence of her characters. And speaking of landscapes: The movie was actually shot in New Zealand, which does a pretty good job of passing as Montana. It's just one more way The Power of the Dog reminds us that appearances can be deceiving, and the most startling truths are often hiding in plain sight.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.