Given how he’s become the face of Britain’s ‘posh thesp exports’ since he struck gold with Sherlock and joined the MCU as Doctor Strange, it can be easy to forget just how sublime an *actor* Benedict Cumberbatch is. You’ll have no such problem in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, where he holds court in a scalding masterpiece of a movie that is more than worth the 12-year wait since Campion last appeared in cinemas. A Greek tragedy playing out against the last gasps of the Old West way of life, it’s a singularly gripping and staggeringly intelligent unpeeling of the prison of masculinity.
Adapting the novel by Thomas Savage, Campion transports us back to 1925 Montana, where the world is, very slowly, changing, but still seems mostly stuck in the 19th Century. This stagnancy is a source of comfort for Phil Burbank (Cumberbatch), the domineering co-owner of the cattle ranch that employs most of the local people. Phil defines himself through his rough-handed mastery of the old ways; driving cattle, making ropes from cowhide, and surviving against the elements on excursions into wilderness, while his softer, more fancily dressed brother George (Jesse Plemons) uses his position as owner to avoid this grunt work.
This disparity is the first source of animosity in a film that is drenched in disagreement and strife. Almost every scene is about power and the way it changes hands in any given moment, and Campion’s flawless exploration of these power dynamics lends The Power of the Dog its omnipresent, suffocating tension. There’s very little physical violence anywhere in the film, but that is not to say that is not a truly vicious piece. Whenever Phil enters a room, he doesn’t just have the most power, he’s the only one with any power at all, able to pinpoint weaknesses and insecurities and find just the right words to not just hurt others but leave them reeling and confused, unable to reply.
And yet, he’s not a simple monster – he treats his ranch hands as equals, and Campion and Cumberbatch give early hints to deeper feelings that Phil refuses to allow himself to express. He’s college-educated and easily the smartest person on the ranch, which makes the Phil he shows to the world feel like a calculated costume, and his jealous relationship with George – with whom he shares a bedroom – gives him the air of both a nagging wife and a scared little boy.
Making sure all these elements hang together is a sensational performance from Cumberbatch, who I don’t think has ever been better than he is here. There’s a desperate loneliness to everything Phil does, the ravaging demands of his awful toxic masculinity cutting him off from the pleasures of the world, and Cumberbatch perfectly balances his sadness and his cruelty. It’s a performance that only gets better as the film goes on and George marries local tavern owner Rose (Kirsten Dunst), bringing her and her college-aged son, the clever but slightly effete Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) into the large and lonely Burbank house.
Phil immediately detests Rose, and his slow, psychological deconstruction of her is one of the most deeply saddening parts of this story, though George also doesn’t help. Bringing Rose in allows Campion to see the house’s power dynamics through new lenses, as George and Rose fail to reckon with the power they have. Rose wants to help out the two maids who work for the Burbanks, but her presence simply discomforts them, while George gets a Phil-level scene of cruelty without even realising he’s doing it when he tells some dinner guests that Rose is a great pianist and insists she play even as she trembles with anxiety.
It’s in Phil’s relationship with Peter that The Power of the Dog really reveals its hand, though. The two men mirror each other physically – Smit-McPhee makes for inspired casting, wiry and slightly alien in the same ways as Cumberbatch – but there’s also something more profound, Phil seeing in Peter the potential to be some sort of protégé. Despite his dandy-ish manner and habit of wearing jeans, Peter is clearly fiercely intelligent, and also has some savagery to him, which Phil seeks to nurture while Rose and George simply don’t see it at all.
Peter manages to surprise not only Phil, but the audience too, and Smit-McPhee does an excellent, even unnerving, job of showing Peter’s quiet delight in shocking people. In Phil’s cruelty, The Power of the Dog builds an incredibly sturdy home in the terror of the inevitable, which makes the moments where it genuinely wrongfoots you that much more thrilling. All these moments eventually creep towards one of my favourite movie endings in years, a perfect fusion of catharsis, tragedy, and ambiguity that is both emotionally scouring and thematically ingenious, while every unnerving moment is elevated by Jonny Greenwood’s superb score.
It might not be quite as dazzlingly inventive as his work in Spencer, but it’s still characteristically brilliant, capturing the sheer brutality of the American frontier through music in much the same way he did in his breakout film work in There Will Be Blood. Meanwhile, Ari Wegner (who also shot the phenomenal Zola) proves the perfect choice to bring Campion’s vision to visual life, from the awe-inspiring landscape shots to the countless fascinating ways she finds to frame The Power of the Dog’s various kinds of touch.
Hands are constantly reaching out in close-up, whether that’s to work, intimidate, or offer comfort, and every touch reveals something deeper. The Power of the Dog is a film so richly textured, so engaging on both visceral and intellectual levels that it feels like an almost impossible achievement. It’s the best film of 2021 so far, and probably the best film to come out since 2019’s Uncut Gems, a magisterial masterpiece from one of the greatest working filmmakers, an intimate arthouse piece rendered on a stunningly huge scale hinging on Benedict Cumberbatch on career-defining form.