British actor Benedict Cumberbatch is generally known for playing urbane Englishmen. In his latest role, in Jane Campion’s powerfully compelling film The Power of the Dog, he dons a Stetson and riding chaps to portray Phil Burbank, a tough, hardbitten cowboy who, with his brother George, runs a wealthy ranch in remote Montana.
As is the way with Campion’s films like The Piano and tv series Top of the Lake, details about her characters are revealed slowly, leaving the viewer to second-guess a character’s back story and their motives. At the outset it’s not clear why Phil, a loner, is so angry, so rough around the edges. He taunts his brother George, played by Jesse Plemons, a mild mannered, softly-spoken, pink-skinned man who marries Rose, a widow who runs a restaurant the men and their cow-hands favour when they drive the cattle to market. When Rose arrives at the Burbank ranch, with her son Peter, another curious, enigmatic character, Phil makes it his business to make her feel as uncomfortable as possible, distracting her while she is practising the piano, or spying on her secret drinking.
Peter is an interesting character too. A pale, thin youth, he’s labelled a “sissy” by Phil, who taunts him for his fey manner; but Peter reveals a hardness by not responding to the taunts and jibes, in his emotionless killing of a wild rabbit while out on an expedition with Phil, and later in skinning a dead cow. This coolness becomes even more apparent at the end of the film
The developing relationship between Phil and Peter hints at Brokeback Mountain moments: we observe Phil covering his naked body with mud, masturbating in a sunlit glade, or skinny dipping in the lake. Peter discovers pornographic magazines stashed away in Phil’s secret hideout, and then there is Phil’s obsession with Bronco Henry, the cowboy who taught him to ride, whose saddle and spurs have pride of place in the stable – and there’s plenty of scope for BDSM kink with all that leather, and ropes and lassos lying around the place…. But Campion never allows the homo-eroticism to develop fully, intriguingly pulling the camera abruptly away before Phil and Peter embrace – or do they? Only at the end of the film do we begin to understand the relationship and Peter’s true motives. The “reveal”, when it comes, is shocking and unexpected.
Cumberbatch heads a fine cast, which includes Kirsten Dunst as the wounded, sensitive Rose. He inhabits the role of Phil fully, his gait suggestive of a man who has spent far too long in the saddle, his manner abrupt, brutal and aggressive, his face rugged but fiercely handsome. It is only when he gazes enigmatically, almost longingly at the distant mountains, or talks of Bronco Henry, or in more intimate moments with Peter, that there is a softening of the hard carapace. We sense a back story, but it is never fully explained. The narrative moves in numbered chapters, details revealed incrementally to create a brooding and unexpected drama, all set against the magnificent, expansive landscape of Montana.
The score is by Jonny Greenwood and it’s redolent of his score for another film about the toughness of men, There Will Be Blood. With its graceful yet uneasy textures, timbres and moods, Greenwood’s score perfectly mirrors the enigma of the film’s characters – it veers between austereness and sensuousness – and the majesty of the natural landscape.
And talking of the landscape, one might better appreciate the mountains and pastures on the big screen, but watching on Netflix, on the small screen, the almost suffocating intensity of the drama is more powerfully felt.
The Power of the Dog is in UK cinemas now and also on Netflix.