Thanks to Jane Campion, Benedict Cumberbatch and a superb supporting cast, ‘The Power of the Dog’ is one of the best films of 2021


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The Power of the Dog

(4 stars out of 4)

Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie, Frances Conroy, Keith Carradine, Peter Carroll and Adam Beach. Written and directed by Jane Campion. Opens Wednesday at TIFF Bell Lightbox. 127 minutes. G

A woman plunks tentatively at a newly arrived piano, trying to remember a tune she once knew well. A stalking man, almost unseen but not out of earshot, plays the elusive number perfectly on a banjo, mocking her hesitancy.

This significant scene in Jane Campion’s mighty and menacing new western, “The Power of the Dog,” recalls gender and musical dynamics of the New Zealand writer/director’s acclaimed earlier work, “The Piano.”

It also summons memories of the guitar-and-banjo porch duet between a city slicker and a redneck in John Boorman’s “Deliverance,” in a brief moment of calm before a man-made storm. That film, like “The Power of the Dog,” is a tale of toxic masculinity with a malevolent mood and an ending that eludes assumptions.

Charismatic rancher Phil Burbank inspires fear and awe in those around him. When his brother brings home a new wife and her son, Phil torments them until he finds himself exposed to the possibility of love.

“The Power of the Dog,” Campion’s first feature in 12 years and one of the best films of 2021, differs from these comparisons in its use of music. Here it’s used as a weapon to divide and unnerve. This includes the brooding score by Jonny Greenwood, Hitchcockian in its twitchy intensity and in sync with the starkly beautiful cinematography of Ari Wegner (“Lady Macbeth,” “Zola”), with New Zealand subbing for Montana.

There’s also eerie whistling by the stalking man, which he employs as one of his many methods to intimidate the woman in his house.

The stalker is a cowboy named Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), a wealthy cattle rancher in the Montana of 1925. The hesitant woman, widow of the town’s late doctor, is Rose (Kirsten Dunst), the new wife of Phil’s younger brother, George (Jesse Plemons).

Rose and her gentle college-aged son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), have moved into the Burbank homestead, which is spacious enough for many but too small to contain Rose, in Phil’s chilly estimation.

Lean, mean and often unclean, Phil is the Marlboro Man from Hell. He’s an old-school rancher who can castrate a bull calf with the slash of a blade and a flick of his ungloved hands. He can tame the wildest of horses with scant effort, using skills taught to him by his adored friend and mentor, the late Bronco Henry. Phil can do just about anything he puts his mind to, including things taught by books.

Phil studied classics at Yale, unlike his milder and less gifted sibling, whom Phil is close to — they shared a bedroom before Rose’s arrival — yet cruelly diminishes with taunts of “Fatso.”

The hostility escalates when George surprises Phil by courting and then suddenly marrying Rose, the proprietor of the Red Mill inn and restaurant, a regular stop on cattle drives.

Phil is not going to give Rose a hearty welcome or an even break, no siree. She’s going to pay simply for being who she is, driven not just to drink but also out of the house, if Phil’s awful plan succeeds.

What Phil can’t do well is get close to people, or at least no one else the way he did to Bronco Henry, who was “more than a best friend” to him. Repressing his sexuality and hating who he is, Phil “loathed the world, should it loath him first,” to use the words of Thomas Savage’s potent source novel, also titled “The Power of the Dog.”

Yet Phil finds himself drawn to the bookish Peter, who proves to be more interesting than he first thought, when he was mocking the kid with homophobic slurs. Peter, whose blade skills rival those of Phil’s, is studying to be a doctor, a surgeon like his late dad, who tragically took his own life.

Peter is able, as is Phil, to see the image of a fiercely barking dog in the shadows of the hills across from the ranch. This threatening image — hinting at the meaning of the film’s title, drawn from a biblical psalm vowing deliverance — eludes the vision and comprehension of most other people, lesser beings in Phil’s mind.

Phil would also be impressed by the vision of Campion, who has long been fascinated by sex and gender tensions, as seen in “The Piano,” and also “Bright Star” and “The Portrait of a Lady,” two other career highlights.

She exceeds herself with this superbly calibrated adaptation of Savage’s 1967 novel, working sensuality into a story — a key in a lock, the caress of a saddle, the sharing of a cigarette — that at its surface might otherwise seem to be a straightforward drama of a bully and his unhappy victims.

Much credit is also due to the actors, especially Cumberbatch, Dunst and Smit-McPhee, who all court Oscar attention with their superb performances, where even the smallest gesture or grimace makes its mark.

“The Power of the Dog” is a tale exceedingly well told and a movie that stays in the mind like a whispered secret.

Peter Howell is a movie critic in Toronto. Twitter: @peterhowellfilm

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