Its good news for all of us that love Benedict Cumberbatch. Happily for us all, Jane Campion has emerged with her first feature film in over a decade, and the outcome is a chewy, multivalent story of two brothers where manhood, sexuality, and egotism combine in a heady stew under the vast Montana skies.
The filmmaker’s adaptation of Thomas Savage’s western novel The Power of the Dog is a drama about masculinity and family dynamics, featuring two brothers on a ranch in Montana circa 1925. The siblings are not unlike those from a Steinbeck novel; Jesse Plemons plays George, a solid, quiet presence constantly belittled by his charismatic but uncouth brother, Phil
From the start, the pair are steeped in an unknowable past; their relationship seems bent to the point of breaking by the kind of emotional violence that their wealthy family has visited on them. Campion’s film builds in five segments, charting the breakdown of Phil and George’s relationship after George’s marriage to an impoverished widow, Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and the introduction of her odd teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
Once all of the in-laws are under one roof, Peter’s habits – an interest in flowers and the natural world – are immediately targeted as effete by the bullying Phil, who has consciously fashioned himself into a cowboy, preferring to work with the rough-and-tumble ranch-hands out back than to drink cocktails at dinner parties.
The point at which the casting of Cumberbatch makes sense is when one learns that his character had an Ivy League education studying the classics, before quitting everything to become a faux salt-of-the-earth rancher.
Campion uses our own awareness of Cumberbatch’s upper-crust Englishness as a strength. This is a performance of a performance, inviting us to see the seams of Phil’s embodiment of hyper-masculinity.
That masculinity is not just welded to the concept of the cowboy as a mythic figure (he has a borderline obsession with a past mentor called Bronco Henry) but to his cruelty towards weaker or smaller things, be they teenage boys, his brother’s wife, or animals. He is a broken, sexually repressed man, never seen around women, whose self-loathing is taken out on those around him.