The period drama “The Power of the Dog” is a graphic, thrilling exploration of male pride and poisonous masculinity, created by a very talented woman and nuanced enough to remain interesting until the end.
Directed by Jane Campion (“The Piano”), the 1967 adaptation of Thomas Savage’s novel, Benedict Cumberbatch as a slick and intimidating cowboy with a strong turn by Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons for a career-best performance. Cody Smit-McPhee. “Power of the Dog” (map four; rated R; now streaming Wednesdays in theaters and Netflix) gives a fresh perspective on the Western genre, with plenty of dudes on horses but also strong intimacy.
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Established in 1925, Montana, George Burbank (Plemons) is part of this quiet and kind business of a volatile sibling with a gangster demeanor and endless machismo: who is adored or despised by George Burbank (Plemons). Cattle runners find themselves dining at a restaurant owned by the widow Rose (Dunst). Peter (Smit-McPhee), the son of Phil Rose’s waiter, jokes about the lisp and naive behavior of an artistic and reserved boy who makes paper flowers for tables. Rose is distressed and horrified by Phil’s actions, but falls for George’s hearty gentleman.
They get married and Rose goes to the brothers’ house, sending Phil’s bad behavior to a new level. Along with George’s pressure to make an impact in social work, she inspires her to drink. When Peter arrives home from college in the summer, Phil finds himself making a mockery of the young but slowly finding his connection. Much to Rose’s horror, Phil wants to teach Peter a cowboy the same way Phil’s beloved mentor Bronco Henry did to him.
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Campion’s film captures the gorgeous image and detailed natural setting of the vast wide-open landscape, which serves as a superb backdrop for all the human dynamics at work. Everyone hides a part of themselves from others, there is an extraordinarily thin line between love and hate, and Campion plays these personalities on the screen as a master fiddler.
Cumberbatch is known for his wide range of characters in his impressive resume, from real-life math talent Alan Turing to Marvel’s superhero wizard Doctor Strange in “The Imitation Game,” but Phil gives him everything he can and more. The full-blown son of a firearm, Cumberbatch’s character lives to reduce his brother (commonly known as “Fatso”), raises his usually unbuttoned ranch hands, and infuriates his new sister-in-law with harsh words or hot licking. Banjo. Yet Phil’s insecurities, mysteries, and desires reveal themselves to the humanity beneath that skin, and the actor also provides a complex inner part of the character.
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Dunst and Plemons, in real life couples bring their chemistry to the screen, with Dunst studying deeply, especially as a tortured rose. But as Oscar consideration as Cumberbatch and Campion is gin up, Smith-McPhee deserves his credit for the stunning progress: Peter may be a mild young man who studies a lot, yet his perspective is the most interesting of the group.
“The Power of the Dog” is a western epic that reimagines cowboy myths and offers its most terrifying surprise for its rejection. Campion skillfully pulls you out of the saddle but the ride is so good that you will hardly complain when you get back.
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