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'The Power of the Dog' review: Western lets Cumberbatch show his teeth

Cumberbatch plays a rancher with a secret in the latest from writer-director Jane Campion.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Benedict Cumberbatch plays one mean son of a gun in "Power of the Dog," writer-director Jane Campion's gritty Western about machismo and bravado on the Montana plains in the 1920s. 

Cumberbatch plays Phil Burbank, a rough and tumble rancher who verbally abuses anyone within earshot. The root of his anger is what gives Campion's story its engine, and if its eventual reveal feels a bit obvious, Campion's handle on the story's setting — aided by cinematographer Ari Wegner's gorgeous landscapes and composer Jonny Greenwood's tense, lush score — helps power this dog along. 

Benedict Cumberbatch in "The Power of the Dog."

The cast is pretty stellar, too.

Along with Cumberbatch, there's Jesse Plemons, who plays Phil's brother George, whom Phil constantly derides as "Fatso"; Kirsten Dunst, Plemons' real life spouse, who plays George's haunted wife Rose; and Kodi Smit-McPhee — Nightcrawler in the recent "X-Men" installments — who plays Rose's effeminate son, Peter, whose arrival on the Burbank family ranch sends tensions, already palpable, soaring. 

It's 1925 and men are men, they get dusty and they rope cattle and they're damn proud of the stink they collect after a hard day's work. Nothing less than that top level of manliness is tolerated, which is what Phil was taught by his mentor Bronco Henry, and it's why Phil and his gang of hooligan ranch hands torment Peter, who speaks with a lisp and doesn't measure up to their vaunted level of macho.

Is Phil perhaps overcompensating for something, repressing something in his outwardly hateful behavior? It doesn't take a psych major to figure out something is going on beneath the surface.

"The Power of the Dog" — the title is borrowed from a Bible verse, and the story is based on Thomas Savage's 1967 novel — is tightly coiled, with an air of tension that is constantly threatening to boil over. Cumberbatch's Phil is a barking menace with an equally vicious bite, and he plays his role with aplomb. Plemons and Dunst also do fine work — Dunst continues to be a model for longing and sadness — and Smit-McPhee steps up in a big way, wrangling center stage when his character gets the better of Phil, learning his secret by catching him in what Phil thought was a private moment. From there, "The Power of the Dog" heads down a dark path of deception, with an ending that hits out of nowhere and leaves the viewer reeling. 

Campion, who hasn't directed a movie since 2009's "Bright Star" and who only comes around now with the frequency of a comet, is assured in her direction and carries the material over its sometimes bumpy terrain. But there's plenty to admire here, from the gorgeous Western photography (that's New Zealand standing in for the Old West) to Cumberbatch's ferocious performance. "Dog" is not without its faults, but its power is hard to deny. 

agraham@detroitnews.com

@grahamorama

'The Power of the Dog'

GRADE: B

Rated R: for brief sexual content/full nudity

Running time: 130 minutes

On Netflix