Review: Benedict Cumberbatch stuns as a cruel cowboy in Jane Campion's 'Power of the Dog'

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The period drama “The Power of the Dog” is a picturesque, enthralling exploration of male ego and toxic masculinity, crafted by an extremely talented woman and offering enough nuanced bite to keep it interesting till the very end.

Amazingly directed by Jane Campion (“The Piano”), the adaptation of the 1967 Thomas Savage novel unbridles Benedict Cumberbatch for a career-best performance as a boorish and bullying cowboy alongside strong turns from Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons, plus a standout showing by Kodi Smit-McPhee. “Power of the Dog” (★★★½ out of four; rated R; in theaters now and streaming Wednesday on Netflix) also gives new perspective on the Western genre, with plenty of dudes on horses but also a powerful intimacy.

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Review: Benedict Cumberbatch stuns as a cruel cowboy in Jane Campion's 'Power of the Dog'

Set in 1925 Montana, the narrative centers on ranching brothers who couldn’t be more opposite: George Burbank (Plemons) is the quiet and kind business side of the duo, Phil (Cumberbatch) is the volatile sibling with the brusque attitude and endless machismo who is either adored or despised. A cattle drive finds them dining at a restaurant owned by widow Rose (Dunst). Phil has a big time making fun of the lisp and effeminate demeanor of Rose’s waiter son Peter (Smit-McPhee), an artistic and reserved lad who makes paper flowers for the tables. Rose is sad and appalled by Phil’s antics, but falls for George’s hearty gentleman nature.

They get married and Rose moves into the brothers’ house, sending Phil’s bad behavior to a new level of mean. That in addition to George’s pressure on her to impress at social functions drives her to drink. When Peter comes home from college for the summer, Phil is at first mocking yet slowly takes the youth under his wing and finds a connection. Much to Rose’s horror, Phil wants to teach Peter the cowboy way in the same fashion that Phil’s beloved mentor, Bronco Henry, did for him.

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Dunst and Plemons, a couple in real life, bring their chemistry to the screen, with Dunst especially delving deep as the tortured Rose. But as much Oscar consideration as Cumberbatch and of course Campion will gin up, Smit-McPhee deserves his kudos for a wondrous breakthrough: Peter might be the meek youngster who studies a lot, yet his perspective is the most intriguing of the bunch.

“The Power of the Dog” is a Western epic that revels in deconstructing the cowboy mythos and leaves its most jarring surprise for its denouement. Campion masterfully knocks you out of the saddle but this ride is so good, you’ll hardly complain when getting back up again.

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