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‘The Power of the Dog’: Benedict Cumberbatch burns as a cowboy tormenting his brother’s new wife

Director Jane Campion returns to feature filmmaking with a dark Western contrasting beautiful scenery and ugly behavior.

Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch, left) delights in demeaning his brother, George (Jesse Plemons), in “The Power of the Dog.”
NETFLIX

“Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.” – Psalm 22:20.

It takes a special kind of cold-blooded sadism to wield a banjo as a psychological weapon, but Phil Burbank pulls it off with almost casual cruelty.

Here’s the setup. In 1925 Montana, the widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst) has married the gentleman farmer George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) and has moved into the ranch mansion George shares with his brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is horrified by the woman’s mere presence and couldn’t be bothered to disguise that. As the nervous, tentative Rose practices playing Strauss’ “Radetzky March” on the piano, striking the wrong keys time and again, she gradually becomes aware of an echo of the same song, coming from upstairs. There’s Phil in the shadows, expertly playing the song on his banjo, finishing with a flourish — and leaving Rose trembling and terrified.

Such expertly crafted set pieces abound in Jane Campion’s beautiful, brooding, dark and unforgiving “The Power of the Dog,” which is based on the 1967 Thomas Savage novel of the same name and brought to life by Campion (“The Piano), the great director who returns to feature filmmaking for the first time in 12 years and delivers a singular work with echoes of everything from the story of Cain and Abel to films such as “Days of Heaven” and “Brokeback Mountain.” With Campion’s native New Zealand standing in magnificently for early 20th century Big Sky Country, “The Power of the Dog” is a study in contrasts between the almost surreal beauty of the mountains and the sky and the vast land, and the nasty, petty and often unspeakably harsh manner in which people will treat one another — even their own kin.

Especially their own kin.

Writer-director Campion divides the story into five chapters identified by Roman numerals. In the early scenes, we meet the Burbank brothers, who run the family ranch together and share the same bedroom as if they were adolescents, even though there’s more than enough room in the grand (if dark and somewhat forbidding) house where they live. Phil (Cumberbatch) is a hard-edged, expert cowboy who seems almost embarrassed by his education and sophistication, and delights in picking on his younger brother George (Plemons), calling him “Fatso” and never missing an opportunity to embarrass him in front of the ranch hands, who idolize Phil and revel in his stories about the late, legendary “Bronco Henry,” who taught Phil everything he knows.

Rose (Kirsten Dunst) moves to the ranch after marrying George, much to Phil’s disgust.
Netflix

The exquisite production design perfectly captures Montana at a crossroads in 1925; the rich folk have cars and there’s a bit of Roaring Twenties debauchery here and there, but when we’re on the ranch it might as well still be 1870. When Phil brings the boys into town for a night with the local sex workers at the saloon and a sit-down dinner at the neighboring Red Mill Inn and restaurant, we’re introduced to the Red Mill’s owner-operator, the prim and proper Rose (Dunst), and her sensitive, artsy son Peter (Smit-McPhee), who crafts intricate paper flower arrangements for the tables, and you can just imagine how the homophobic, hateful Phil reacts to that. After Phil’s typically rude actions bring Rose to tears, George lingers to comfort Rose, and we see the beginnings of a romance.

Time passes. Phil is caught flat-footed and is enraged when George announces he has married Rose and will be bringing her to the ranch. Oh, and this summer, when Peter is home from school, he’ll be staying there as well. “The Power of the Dog” has its moments of romance and sweetness, as when Rose tries to teach George how to dance, and George is moved to tears and tells her it’s just nice not to be alone anymore. More often, though, Phil’s poisonous ways reach like tentacles through the house, as he makes fun of Peter and terrorizes Rose to the point where she drinks herself into a stupor just to numb herself. (George, alas, while holding good intentions, is either too blind or too weak to stand up to his brother. Maybe a little bit of both.)

Eventually, though, we begin to see Peter in a different light — and Phil does as well, taking the lad under his wing, teaching him to ride, working on a special rope for him. We think we know what’s transpiring between those two, until we don’t, and let’s just leave it right there.

“The Power of the Dog” is filled with memorable performances, from Cumberbatch in one of his most interesting and layered performances to solid work from Plemons and Dunst, to the amazing portrayal by Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter, who keeps surprising us and turns out to be, well, really something.