“Bite it. You have to bite it.” With that carnal, half-panted demand, addressed to a teenage girl fumbling with a bar of chocolate, Benedict Cumberbatch introduced a concentrated drop of poison into the 2007 film of Ian McEwan’s Atonement. A relative newcomer to movies, his brief turn as a spiv with an untrustworthy moustache seemed to augur well for a career of playing insidious wretches. That isn’t quite how it panned out – no shit, Sherlock – but Cumberbatch has occasionally dallied with the dark side. Not even his Dominic Cummings in Brexit, though, is as repellent as Phil Burbank, the seething tormentor he plays in Jane Campion’s Western The Power of the Dog.
The character feels for Cumberbatch less like a departure than an encore, a circling back to the foothills of his career. Circles are important in this context. Phil tips a chair on to one leg after dinner, twirling it round and round. The effete, ungainly Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the main target of Phil’s hostility, wears an oversized white Stetson, its brim a glowing halo, and is partial to hula-hooping when anxious. Peter is circled by horses in one scene, and rides his own in a circle in another. It is a loop of repression and self-loathing, too, which has made Phil the bully he is. When will his chance for atonement come?
The catalyst is unlikely to be his stoical, bow-tied brother George (Jesse Plemons), a decent sort who turns a blind eye to Phil’s cruelty. (Phil repays the indulgence by calling him “fatso”.) The siblings, who own a prosperous ranching business in 1920s Montana, have cause one evening to visit an inn with their fellow cowboys. George takes a shine to its owner, the widowed Rose (Kirsten Dunst), when he finds her sobbing in the kitchen. Where there are tears, Phil is never far away. He has been taunting Peter, Rose’s son, who painstakingly crafts the tiny paper flowers that adorn the tables at dinner. “I wonder what little lady made these,” sneers Phil, shortly before setting fire to one and using it to light his cigarette.
It has not long turned to ash when George takes Rose as his wife, moving her in with him and Phil while Peter goes off to study medicine. Rose is terrified of her brother-in-law, and rightly so: he suspects she is out for George’s dough, and pledges to make her life hell.
The picture’s first half comprises scenes of brimming menace, accompanied by Jonny Greenwood’s jittery, string-led score. Scattered among these are images of beauty and foreboding. The cinematographer Ari Wegner’s wide shots of cattle inching across the landscape beneath a dense crust of cloud (New Zealand stands in for Montana) make one feel more than usually heartbroken that this is a Netflix production destined for living rooms and laptops after a brief trot around the theatrical paddock.
The threat escalates in the superior second half, once Peter returns home from his studies. Campion, who adapted the screenplay from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, is no stranger to stories of sexuality bubbling over in confinement or isolation (think back to Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel in The Piano, or Kate Winslet and Keitel again in Holy Smoke!), but it is unusual for her emphasis to be so singularly male. A shot of cowboys sunbathing on the river banks, naked but for the Stetsons serving as fig leaves, marks the point at which the movie shifts decisively into Billy Budd territory after an hour or so of hinting that Phil’s fondness for chaps isn’t confined to the leather variety.
Dunst is short-changed by this arrangement, her story tossed away in the later stages as Rose succumbs to alcoholism; it’s as though the film has slipped her a Mickey Finn. Audiences may not even notice this injustice as the movie drills down into the myths and shortcomings of masculinity, the dynamic between Phil and Peter shifting uneasily. Smit-McPhee, thin and white as a stick of chalk, is all odd angles and tantalisingly unreadable urges; Cumberbatch stews convincingly as Campion cranks up the heat. Good though he is, it would be wrong to pretend that his creeping overtures to other men (“That’s a cowboy tan you’ve got there”) don’t call to mind the pilot in Airplane! asking little Joey whether he likes gladiator movies, or if he’s ever been in a Turkish prison.
“The Power of the Dog” is in cinemas now and on Netflix from 1 December
This article appears in the 24 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Agent of Chaos