It’s fair to say that Benedict Cumberbatch is perhaps a little over-exposed. Since his big break with Sherlock in 2010, he has appeared in all manner of films, not only in prestige dramas like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Imitation Game, but also in major franchises like Star Trek, The Hobbit, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Despite their varied nature and differing challenges, it feels like all of these roles have blinded us to the simple fact that he is actually an outstanding actor. Not to say that he hasn’t done good work in the past ten years, but rather that we’ve forgotten exactly how good he can be.
Jane Campion is here to remind us of this and that she is one of the best directors working today.
The Power of the Dog is Jane Campion’s first film in a dozen years, and while she hasn’t been idle in that time, this film is also a reminder that she is among the best at what she does. Set in 1925 Montana, the film follows cattle rancher brothers George, played by Jesse Plemmons, is a kind man with a big heart, whereas Phil, played by Cumberbatch, is angry, controlling, bully of a man. When George takes a liking to a local widow and inn owner called Rose (played by Kirsten Dunst), Phil immediately assumes that she s in it for the money.
Rose also has a son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), an effeminate young man with a lisp whom Phil and his entire crew of ranch hands mock mercilessly.
All four of the principal actors in this film are at their best. Plemmons and Dunst, partners in real life, have tender chemistry and screen presence. Plemmons George would be an easy character to come off as simple or slow, and while it’s clear that George is self-conscious about his choices, it’s also clear that this comes entirely from his brother. Dunst’s Rose, a character whose entire part is to shrink under torture from Phil, could similarly have been a caricature, but Dunst gives one of her best performances as a woman trying and failing not to buckle under pressure.
Kodi Smit-McPhee is perhaps the best cast of the lot, with his slender frame and curious looks being precisely the type that the traditional and toxic male would instantly make fun of. A boy who prefers white shoes to boots and to be sequestered in his room dissecting small animals rather than tending to the livestock, his presence is both tender and unnerving.
It is Cumberbatch who is the show, though. Phil, a man of many layers of anger, resentment, and self-loathing, is the type of man who feels unique and like so many others we’ve known. His need for dominance comes entirely from his own perceived weaknesses and ideas of how the world should work; everything about this performance is nuanced and fascinating. Everything from the way he speaks right down to the swagger with which he walks is nearly perfect, and once the film gets around to revealing exactly what is happening and why Phil is the way he is, even the more exaggerated pieces entirely make sense.
Campion, for her part, may never have been so in control of the tone and pace of a story before. Everything from the locations (New Zealand stands in for Montana) to the way the camera moves, to the balance between exposition and visual storytelling, is so perfectly on point, and that’s before you even consider the performances she gets out of her actors.
The Power of the Dog is a deliberately paced film with a tone and narrative controlled with laser-like precision by its director and has at least one (if not more) of the best performances of 2021.
The Power of the Dog is on Netflix now.
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