From his villainous turn in Atonement to his ornery Doctor Strange in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Benedict Cumberbatch is no stranger to thorny characters. He has seemed to specialize over the course of his career in a specific type of jerk: the intellectually pretentious, anti-social sort that characterizes both his Sherlock Holmes and his portrayals of Alan Turing and Thomas Edison.
But The Power of the Dog sees him inhabit a completely new type of role that certainly proves his acting abilities (not that they were in question). In this Western period drama, Cumberbatch portrays macho cowboy Phil Burbank whose presence intimidates not just everyone around him, but the audiences themselves.
It’s also something a bit new for director and writer Jane Campion, whose previous work has largely focused on women. This adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel marks Campion’s first feature film since she made Bright Star in 2009. It sees her pivot to address toxic masculinity and queer feelings in 1925 Montana.
Phil (Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemmons) might be brothers, but they couldn’t be more different. George is a sweet, but simple man who handles the business aspects of their cattle ranch. Phil is a true cowboy, working directly with the animals. But where George is well-dressed and polite, Phil is mean and dirty. The rest of the men from the ranch admire and defer to Phil as he blends more into their rough ways than George, who clearly sticks out. Phil bullies everyone around him from his brother to the waiter in the restaurant that they stop to eat in during a cattle run.
That waiter is Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) whose father died four years prior and who is rather protective of his mother (Kirsten Dunst) who runs a hotel and restaurant in a small town. Peter is an odd, sensitive boy who makes paper flowers and who hula hoops when he’s nervous. Rose has a frailty to her, but the mother and son pair are devoted to each other even if they struggle to communicate. When Phil upsets Peter with his mean remarks, it distresses Rose and George finds her crying in the kitchen.
Rose and George take to each other quickly and are awkward, but in a cute way. The pair get married and set out for the family ranch. But all isn’t well for long, as Rose is unsettled by Phil’s presence in the house and stressed by George’s expectations for her as a hostess. Phil thinks that Rose has married his brother for their money and before long, his judgement drives her to start drinking.
Peter is at college studying to be a doctor, but he comes to the ranch for his summer holiday. At first, his arrival antagonizes Phil, who seems disgusted by his lack of knowledge of all things outdoors. However, after an incident, Phil takes the younger boy under his wing which only further distresses Rose. The film’s ending comes as a bit of a surprise, though there are clues dropped along the way.
Phil continually tells stories about his mentor, Bronco Henry, who died twenty years before like he’s Pride and Prejudice’s Mr. Collins droning on about Lady Catherine de Bourgh. As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that part of Phil’s rough exterior is a cover for the loss and pain he feels and proof of the walls he has constructed to keep people away. Cumberbatch does an excellent job at portraying this layered character who remains engaging despite how terrible his actions and words are. Cumberbatch is also doing some of the best accent work of his career.
This is an excellent role for Dunst, who hasn’t been in a film since 2017. It’s particularly fun to see her act opposite Plemmons, her real-life fiancé, and father of her two children. She’s very expressive, particularly in portraying Rose’s anxiety. She never allows her performance to become too much, even in her drunken scenes, but keeps it realistic and grounded.
Though Smit-McPhee is missing for a section of the film, he gives a solid performance of a gangly and uncomfortable young man, with something more lingering beneath the surface. It’s the kind of performance that needs multiple viewings to fully unpack, once you know what to look for.
Plemmons has the simplest role of the main quartet, as George is perhaps the only person in the film who isn’t hiding something. Still, he provides an excellent foil to Cumberbatch’s Phil and believably crafts a man who loves his wife, but doesn’t know how to stand up to his brother on her behalf. Bizarrely, Thomasin McKenzie (also seen earlier this year as the lead in Last Night in Soho) appears in a tiny role as the Burbanks’ maid.
In addition to stellar acting, the film is beautifully made. Cinematographer Ari Wegner creates gorgeous shots of sweeping plains and mountains, but also uses his camerawork to build tension throughout, creating a sense of foreboding. While the production and costume design are both strong, it’s Jonny Greenwood’s moody string-heavy score that is the other standout.
The Power of the Dog is a very subtle film; its plot is nuanced and things that might seem insignificant become important later on. In fact, it may require a second watch to fully grasp everything that Campion is doing with the film. It can feel slow in moments, though this is likely a deliberate build on Campion’s part towards the film’s eventual resolution. The Power of the Dog is a film that requires patience, but it’s well worth it for its beauty and Cumberbatch’s stellar performance.
The Power of the Dog is streaming now on Netflix.
Nicole Ackman is a writer, podcaster, and historian based in North Carolina. She loves period dramas, the MCU, and theatre. Nicole is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and the Online Association of Female Film Critics and is Tomato-Meter Approved.