Vapor, Cumberbatch shines in sublime gothic western

By Jake Coyle | Associated Press

Tracing images of a lone figure sliding across a western plain, seen from inside the darkened interior of a home, Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” records. As the man walks, with wrinkled hills behind him, the camera slides through the house. He goes in and out of sight with every window.

The man is Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), a rough-hewn Montana rancher with a menacing arrogance and a cocky, upright posture. The first time we see him this way, through the windows, it is an early signal that “The Power of the Dog” will pulsate with friction between inside and out, that its masterful vision of the West will unfold in a juxtaposition of robust exterior and darker, more mysterious interiors.

“The Power of the Dog” is Campion’s first film since her 2009 luminous John Keats drama “Bright Star”; meanwhile, she made the series “Top of the Lake”, the lively New Zealand mystery. Even without stepping on a 12-year film set, the appreciation of Campion has grown nonetheless. Her films, including her masterpiece “The Piano” from 1993, have only gained admirers for the way they capture assertive inner lives that permeate social structures and male hegemony. In Campion’s formally composed film, the lyrics break through.

Adapted by Campion from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, “The Power of the Dog” is less a return to the form of Campion than a big screen reminder of her virtuosity. The movie, which Netflix opened in theaters on Wednesday, is not the western you might think it is – even though it’s on the border. (Campion shot New Zealand for 1920s Montana, and its strange, rugged mountain contours only reinforce the feeling that this is not your traditional old west.) There’s Jonny Greenwood’s disturbing score, to begin with. And the attacking, oversized ranch house, a large pile of wood on dry grasslands, is also a clue that something more Gothic is at stake here.

There live Phil and brother George (Jesse Plemons), a studio in opposites. George is finely dressed, humble and ornate; Phil, while studying intellect, seems to never take off the sexes. He revel in the area’s outdoor life. “I stink and I like it,” he says. Phil is convinced that he has a greater understanding of farm life, masculinity and something more existential. He sees something in the folds of the menacing mountain range that his men are struggling to identify. One asks if there is anything there. “Not if you can not see it, there is not,” Phil replies.

But just what Phil can and cannot see is the core of “The Power of the Dog,” a film that, like the novel, takes its name from a hymn. The whole line reads, “Free my soul from the sword, my treasure from the power of the dog.” Dogs that in biblical times were seen as unclean scavengers were a kind of stand-in for the devil. But whose soul is in danger in “The Power of the Dog”?

It looks a lot like Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst, brilliant) is the one in the crosshairs. She is a widow who runs a boarding house, which George falls for and quickly marries. (Their romance, which Campion allows for a pervasive image of while embracing a cathedral of mountain peaks all around, has a special sweetness because it’s a reality, too.) When George takes her home, Phil is not shy. about his unhappiness over a woman’s intrusion into his male realm. Although his brother has long since learned to avoid or ignore Phil’s fearsome gaze, Rose begins to wither under pressure and begins to drink heavily. A psychodrama sets in, only where the film goes from here is not as obvious as you might think.

The tension between the three-a-people does not abate, but Campion’s film weighs heavily on a fourth character: Rose’s teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). He first comes to the ranch in the film’s second act, and introduces a completely different, perhaps modern presence to the drama. Peter is a slender beanbag who dresses in black and white and – gasps – sneakers and makes fragile flowers out of paper. Phil, who hides his homosexuality, takes Peter under his wings, an almost unfathomable development that finds itself somewhere between horror (that Phil’s hard lessons will only put the seemingly delicate Peter to slaughter) and tenderness. Cumberbatch, who is so alive to the contradictions of his character, and Smit-McPhee, with an uplifting unique demeanor and a narrow strength, artfully play both options.

Against a magnificent backdrop, “The Power of the Dog” swings with an evolving power dynamic that almost seems to grip the film itself. Campion’s films can feel unbalanced, with its primary characters often paired or isolated, but rarely all of them despite the set-up of the chamber piece. (George especially disappears from sight.) And no matter how richly drawn the film is, the ending comes almost too quickly. “The Power of the Dog” may ultimately be more of a twisted psychological thriller than a transcendent borderline epic. But the film’s transformative transformation is also part of its ruthless finesse.

“The power of the dog”

3 1/2 stars out of 4

Evaluation: R (for short sexual content / full nudity)

Runningtime: 126 minutes


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