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The Power of the Dog offers a suspenseful story filled with compelling characters

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Writer-director Jane Campion (The Piano) brings the 1967 Thomas Savage novel of the same name to the screen. It's 1925 Montana, and ranchers and brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) run the show. They couldn't be more different. George is quiet and measured, while Phil is revered by his men but cruel to his brother and others. Their lives are routine until George courts and abruptly marries a local widow, Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), who has an effeminate son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who Phil is especially abusive toward. (126 min.)

ON THE RANGE Effeminate teenager, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), develops a relationship with a hardened Montana rancher, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), in The Power of the Dog, based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage and brought to the screen by Jane Campion, playing on Netflix. - PHOTO COURTESY OF FOX SEARCHLIGHT PICTURES
  • Photo Courtesy Of Fox Searchlight Pictures
  • ON THE RANGE Effeminate teenager, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), develops a relationship with a hardened Montana rancher, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), in The Power of the Dog, based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage and brought to the screen by Jane Campion, playing on Netflix.
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Glen Believe the hype. This is an amazing film. If you don't have Netflix, find a friend who does and invite yourself over. I don't think I've ever had my feelings toward characters shift so radically as they did in this film. Phil is a horrible person. He and his brother clearly have some past demons, and while they both speak reverently of their mentor "Bronco" Henry, there seems to be more to the story. The brothers own a beautiful ranch with a huge ranch house, yet they still share a bedroom with two narrow beds. Their relationship is clearly complicated, and though Phil seems to be the natural leader, he always includes George in decisions, which is why he feels a particular betrayal when George takes a wife who Phil assumes is just a gold digger. When she moves into the house, Phil is aggrieved, but one summer after Rose's son, Peter, comes home from his first year of college to stay at the ranch for a few months, things become even more complicated. Peter is a fascinating character. He's very sensitive, but as a pre-med student, he can also snare a rabbit, bring it home, and dissect it. This unusual boy, at first the brunt of Phil's abuse, becomes Phil's protégé, which Rose—who's been driven to alcoholism by Phil's cruelty—is none too pleased with. She fears Phil's attention toward Peter is dangerous. It's a setup for an amazing ending that I didn't see coming. If you've heard critics saying this is one of the year's best, believe them.

Anna This was definitely not what I was expecting, and Cumberbatch earns his stripes here. His portrayal of Phil is brutal yet reserved—a man I thought I would surely hate until the end of time, yet who I also found a soft spot for in the end. This film also benefits from the beautiful but empty atmosphere; while filmed in New Zealand, this story takes place in the endless countryside of Montana. Dunst is powerful here as the broken, timid Rose who lost her first husband to suicide and can't seem to connect with her new beau. She loves and is protective of her son, and once he's away at school, she's heartbroken and lonely, hiding booze in every corner of the house and becoming more and more unglued from those around her. This film is all about relationships, healthy or not. I can't give Cumberbatch enough praise on this role. It's meaty and mean and way more complicated than I expected. Phil seems to have an almost godlike opinion of their mentor "Bronco" Henry, but almost immediately we know that there is a lot more to the story. While it isn't spelled out in dialogue, the film trusts its audience to suss out the nuance. Phil's the real-deal tough cowboy, but it seems that a lot of that bravado is actually a form of self-protection.

Glen I was very surprised to learn the Rotten Tomatoes audience score was only 62 percent, while critics ranked it 96. I think it's an amazing film with stunning performances. In fact, I haven't seen a performance as riveting as Cumberbatch's since Daniel Day Lewis gave up acting. He fully embodies Phil—every complicated inch of him. Watching him strut around the ranch with his fur chaps, hearing the frightening sound of his boots and spurs across the wood floors of the house—he's all menace. He doesn't like the "house" bathtub, preferring to scrub with mud and bathe in a secluded area of a nearby creek. Phil at first appears to be a knuckle-dragging asshole, but we learn he graduated at the top of his class at Yale, where he studied "The Classics." He's a walking contradiction. His over-the-top machismo and casual cruelty turn out to be a hard shell he's created to protect himself. He's deeply lonely, especially after his brother gets married. I think this may well be a career-best performance for Cumberbatch, and I'll be shocked if he and Campion aren't nominated for Academy Awards for their work on this remarkable, unforgettable film.

Anna I have to say, audiences don't know what they are talking about on this one. It's a stunning film, and I also would be gobsmacked if Campion and Cumberbatch don't get nominated. Jesse Plemons is always a solid casting, and while he isn't the focus of the film, he's a strong and clearly thought-out character. Let's face it, it would suck to have a brother like Phil—one who calls you "fatso" as his play at affection and makes you feel worthless and foolish and simple. While it seems Phil is just a brute in chaps, we soon see that he's a well—deep and unknown, and unfortunately addicted to misery. He taunts Rose, either out of jealousy for his brother's attention or maybe even as a backhanded way of trying to connect with her. Because of the nature of this film and the way it all wraps up, we can't say much about the nuances of the ending, but I'll ask you to trust me here: It pays off in a way both shocking and emotional but does so with a subtle hand. We couldn't stop talking about this movie once it was over. It's worth turning the lights out and paying attention to. Δ

Senior Staff Writer Glen Starkey and freelancer Anna Starkey write Split Screen. Glen compiles streaming listings. Comment at gstarkey@newtimesslo.com.

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