ST. LOUIS — Phil Burbank is the kind of guy whose reputation doesn't just precede him; it owns his soul. A Montana rancher in 1925, he walks like a guy who thinks everyone around him should be a clone of himself. If you aren't a rancher or somehow don't prefer it much, Phil isn't a fan. Played by Benedict Cumberbatch, he is the magnetic personality who uses his charisma as a weapon of desperation rather than a soldier for real connection.
That is until Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) show up at the estate, courtesy of Phil's brother, George (Jesse Plemons). Unlike his discouraging sibling, George is a growing tree compared to Phil's dangerous seed. It's this minor shakeup of the Burbank household that sets Jane Campion's complex yet intelligent new film, "Power of the Dog."
What exactly does the title stand for? Like the movie itself, it's hard to see at first glance. In order for "Power of the Dog" to really strike you and eat up some real estate in your soul, you'll have to see past its rough exterior. Think of it as like a conversation with Phil in a small room: the first part is going to be uncomfortably honest and driven by deplorable actions, yet the payoff sure will be worth the endurance.
When I left the theater, a cloud of doubt surrounded my overall reaction to the film. It was more than merely "good" or "bad;" I wasn't sure what I had just witnessed. The speed of the ending-the last 25 minutes make this film what it is-must have overwhelmed me. But as I broke down Campion's deconstruction of the ultimate tough guy rancher, I started to understand its unforgiving yet telling moral. Sometimes, a movie with something to say takes a few hours or days to fully marinate into the brain.
I'll say this about the film: the stellar acting didn't take long to sink in.
Cumberbatch continues to spread his wings in terms of character choice and the boldness of a particular role. As he said in an interview earlier this month, this was a different kind of role for him to undertake--one with an alternate style of complexity. He referred to some earlier roles causing him to "build the runway as the plane was taking off," a phrase that opposed his preparation for Phil. He goes all the way, ranging from conniving to completely unapologetic without ever losing your attention.
In one particular scene, he hounds Dunst's Rose by mocking her piano playing with an old banjo. Every time she struggles with a note change, he strums the guitar with snarky intent. You haven't seen Cumberbatch this bent in the other direction--not a hero turn but not a clear-cut baddie either. Phil's intent is to make the people around him either fear or merely revere him--a mask to hide his pain.
Smit-McPhee's Peter is also an unusual nut to crack in this script. He looks like the black sheep of the family upon arrival, but there's a mystery to this young man that is key to the plot and its third act. The gracious Australian actor lends a dual-faceted slow burn to Peter, which paired well with Dunst. Her portrayal of a wounded bird being pecked at by a crow gives the film its rugged heart and balance.
From the moment she lays her eyes on Phil's mean streak, it's a battle of wills between the two--often a one-sided one. Dunst never overplays Rose's weakness, instead using her bad luck-driven self esteem to strengthen the movie's core. The sweetness that Plemons instills in George is understated. Given the role carrying the least amount of juice, the actor (and real life husband of Dunst) leans into the often-maligned yet good-hearted brother.
"Power of the Dog" is an unconventional film where you learn who the real villain was after it's over. Its mystery, while it doesn't feel particularly good initially, turns out to be its greatest strength. The trailer and overall marketing of the film were sharp--which means your expectations won't be subverted, only redirected.
Campion, who adapted Thomas Savage's autobiography, doesn't direct that often, so I knew this one had to mean something deeply to her. Starting with 1989's "Sweetie" and hitting a high note with 1993's "The Piano," Campion has only directed eight feature-length movies.
But she also keeps her target on the complexity in relationships, leaning often towards the deplorable souls on a crash course for a reckoning. Unpredictable and the right kind of picky, she's always an auteur to look out for this time of year.
In other words, she's a heavy hitter. So is "Power of the Dog," a film that is easier to admire than like, yet impossible to ignore its intelligence. A bold movie.