You don’t look at Benedict Cumberbatch and think “cowboy”, a fact that works to the advantage of this heart-stoppingly tense Western, Jane Campion’s first feature film since 2009. To say more would spoil a crucial, mid-point revelation. Suffice to say that tough, brawn-worshipping Montana rancher, Phil Burbank (Cumberbatch, in his meatiest role in years), enjoys his alone time and a scene in which he caresses a scarf is so sensual it hurts.
Phil is a bully. He’s cruel to his younger brother, George (Jesse Plemons), who he dubs “fatso”. He despises George’s new wife, Rose (Kirsten Dunst; truly glorious), whose “fat face” disgusts him. He also baits Rose’s delicate, on-the-spectrum teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Once the summer holidays arrive, Rose and Peter find themselves stuck on the ranch. It’s 1925 and Phil’s the king of this jungle. What could possibly dethrone him, except love?
Campion conjures magic from the setting (New Zealand, standing in for Utah). She flits from long shots of lilac mountains to close-ups of lush grass and Peter’s outlandishly slender body. The result is as visually stunning as anything in Howard Hawks’ Red River. The two cow operas – with such different takes on what fuels machismo - would make a fine double bill.
Campion is working from a 1967 novel that was ahead of its time (author Thomas Savage influenced all sorts of writers, including Annie Proulx). The script will fuel many dinner-party debates. I’ve heard mutterings that The Power of the Dog is misogynistic, which is crazy talk. But, on a ton of other issues, there’s plenty to discuss, among it some of Campion’s decisions.
In Savage’s book, Phil says nasty things about Jewish people. Why, in the film, has his anti-Semitism been expunged? Also, Campion foregrounds Peter’s autism. Is that a radical or retrograde move? And isn’t there something a little soapy about Rose’s secret boozing? Above all, does the fact that the ending is easy to guess count as a flaw or is it proof of the story’s no-nonsense, mythic power?
Of course, at this time of year, the question of who and what deserves prizes is bound to crop up. Luckily, that one’s easy to settle. I can’t get Phil’s startled eyes out of my head. As vulnerable villains go, he’s up there with Peter Lorre’s Hans Beckert and Orson Welles’ Harry Lime. And that’s mostly thanks to Benedict. Doggone it, just give him the Best Actor Oscar now.
128mins, cert 12A
The Power of the Dog is screening at the BFI London Film Festival on October 11, 12 and 17. It is in selected cinemas from November 19 and on Netflix from December 1