I paused my home viewing of The Power of the Dog to watch a Christmas movie with my daughter. Coincidentally that film, The Grinch, also features Benedict Cumberbatch as the lead. That movie from 2018 showed Cumberbatch as a more versatile actor than he had been given credit for. No one was arguing his talent but people had an idea of him as always playing the quirky, clever and overly mannered Brit because of Sherlock, The Imitation Game, Parade’s End, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and War Horse. To be fair by this time he’d already done very different things in projects like Star Trek Into Darkness, Black Mass, Doctor Strange, Frankenstein on stage (I saw that) and Zoolander 2 (wish I hadn’t seen that). Nonetheless the guy was getting pigeon holed.
Now though he should really shake this off because in The Power of Dog he is essaying a very different character, to the point that, despite nothing being done to alter his features, he is almost unrecognisable. At a glance in places you’d almost think you were watching Matthew McConaughey.
Cumberbatch is Phil Burbank, one of a pair of brothers with Jesse Plemons’ George, who run a successful ranch in mid 20’s Montana. Early in the story George marries a widowed woman, which fractures the already strained relationship the siblings have. Phil is convinced that the woman Rose is a gold digger (figuratively, not in the literal sense as some people were at the time) and sets out to make her life unbearable with a campaign of insidious bullying.
Cumberbatch has played bad guys before. He voiced Smaug in The Hobbit films, appeared as two different Khan’s in Star Trek and Mowgli respectively and was none other than Satan himself in TV’s Good Omens. Somehow he has never been this nasty though and he does it so well. This being Cumberbatch though, and the film being written and directed by Jane Campion, there are more layers to the characterisation. Phil is a victim of his own concept of masculinity and his desire and challenges in becoming what he thinks he should be in this respect have totally corrupted him. This film is a fascinatingly complex study of a certain type of maleness from a superb female director.
At first this is the focus of the film and the action mostly plays second fiddle to the character study. There are others around him who also get properly developed though. Kirsten Dunst is excellent as Rose and Kodi Smit McPhee is quietly strong as her son Peter. Every time Dunst said Peter I was transported back to when she used to say it to Tobey McQuire in the Spider-Man films but even with this distraction, her crumbling in the face of Phil’s behaviour is captivating. Plemons, who is Dunst’s on screen and real life partner, possibly feels a little one note but probably only because he is in this company and he still brings a calm intensity to his part.
The early half of the film could be seen as being a little slow then but it all pays off as the story progresses. Phil begins to show signs of thawing and the whole time you are just waiting for things to explode but the plot does not go where you think and the end is fascinating. Watching it I had a moment of not knowing what had happened but then the realisation of how it had all come together was so so rewarding. I guess by any definition the denouement is a twist but it is played out with such deftness and subtlety that is doesn’t feel as gimmicky as that.
The Power of the Dog is getting Oscar talk and it deserves it. The cinematic story telling is brilliant and the way Campion plays with the tools of film making from the script to the cinematography is masterful.
Of course the notion of being a master and the morphology of the language it is steeped in are exactly the kind of dominant masculinity that Campion is dissecting. Rather than steer away from this though I watch in delight as it is powerfully redefined.
Good choice Ben.