This is Montana in 1925, set decades after most Westerns. Despite cows being herded by proper cowboys with comically wide trousers and metal spurs spinning on their heels, you needn’t travel far to see automobiles scurrying around.
Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons as brothers Phil and George. Photo: Netflix
The land is owned by two brothers with opposing personalities. George (Jesse Plemons) is quiet, considerate, and clearly loving despite taking time to admit it. Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is rougher and tougher, a wild bull and a perfect portrait of toxic masculinity. He calls his brother ‘fatso’ at every opportunity, maybe more often than his actual name.
Phil’s anger, displeasure and sadism can’t be contained. Scenes in which he exposes his animal heart can be hard to watch, especially as it’s obligingly accepted without confrontation. Nobody wants to cross him, no matter who he hurts.
But there’s an unspoken love between the brothers, which Campion details delicately – revealing their backstory in drips. Equally, the godly esteem in which Phil holds his dead friend Bronco Henry draws an invisible form that lingers spectrally over the film. Campion prioritises subtle, indicative imagery over spoken exposition: the met and unmet stares, the different ways they move, George’s creaseless suit versus Phil’s malodorous herding gear.
Phil’s love for his brother reveals itself, unkindly, when George spends time with the local widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst). The couple gestates into a relationship, forcing the families to come closer. This also embraces Rose’s softer, introverted son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who’s mocked by other men for picking flowers and having a lisp. Phil even makes Rose weep after suggesting her son ‘snap out of it and get human’.
Kirsten Dunst as Rose. Photo: Netflix
The film takes its time to show a more human side to Phil. Often his vulnerabilities are seen in the shadows or in the corners of a forest nobody enters. Even though Campion floats through the perspectives of all four characters, each holding secrets, Phil's the big red giant forcing everybody to orbit him through fear.
Whereas the first half perfectly constructs this dangerous dynamic, the second half struggles to keep it together. The narrative becomes looser, drifting through the characters like in a stream of consciousness – except for George, who just disappears at one stage.
Long moments stretch so much they're close to tedium. This resembles more of a director’s unwillingness to kill their darlings than an attempt at lingering profundity (at least 10 minutes could’ve been cut). But despite being too much, the sluggishness suits that rural atmosphere where nothing much happens.
Cumberbatch can’t really escape the meticulous, anti-social genius of Sherlock, and the typecast roles that came after. But that makes contentious characters like Phil a breathtaking surprise every time. Although The Power of the Dog loses its structure, Cumberbatch’s naturally fascinating charisma – shifting, eventually, into something less abrasive – carries you through.
Reviewed at the London Film Festival 2021. The Power of the Dog will be in UK cinemas on Friday 19 November, and available on Netflix from Wednesday 1 December.
|The Power of the Dog, Netflix review
19 Nov 21 – 19 Nov 22, IN CINEMAS
01 Dec 21 – 01 Dec 22, ON NETFLIX
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