I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Bronco Henry made Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) a man and the latter won’t let anyone forget it twenty years after his mentor’s death. Everything he does is a testament to his late friend as a result. Finished with the long trek herding cows back to the family ranch run by him and his brother George (Jesse Plemons)? Drink a shot to Bronco. Find yourself in need of a task to take your mind off the gradual deterioration of a life you thought you held control over? Head to the barn and treat Bronco’s old saddle to keep its leather as fresh as the day it was made. Need a quiet respite from the chaos of western living? Gaze out over the hills at something only Bronco could see.
Those are the things men do. Drink. Have pride in one’s possessions. Bask in the glory of nature as someone strong enough to tame its wildest features. Men are loud. Domineering. Indignant. And Phil is all that and more. To meet him at the start of Jane Campion‘s The Power of the Dog (adapted from Thomas Savage‘s novel) is to know it both as a positive and negative. Because while his no-holds-barred attitude comes with an abundance of confidence to engage those in his employ at the expense of those he looks down upon, it also holds a meanness that cuts deep to the bone. It’s the sort of arrogance that grates on those who find themselves the usual target of its lashing—those like the genial George.
Things aren’t so black and white, however. Nor would you expect it with Campion at the helm. She drops us in at a crucial tipping point wherein you might wonder if George is mustering the courage to tell his brother enough is enough. We’ve yet to fully realize the inner workings of their relationship because all we see at first is Phil regaling the younger cowboys as George floats around in the background. What we soon learn is that the latter’s interests are simply shifting. While Phil continues to enjoy getting his hands dirty, George embraces the baths and clean clothes positioning him as a person of worth. The former has thus watched the partner he wanted his brother to remain disappear to leave a complete stranger behind.
Enter Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), the widowed owner of a restaurant/inn a few towns over from the Burbank’s ranch. Not only has George begun to distance himself from Phil, but he suddenly finds himself married with a stepson (Kodi Smit-McPhee‘s Peter) and thus in full opposition of the Bronco Henry way of solitary cowboy life. And it eats away at Phil. He sees it as a betrayal and does nothing to hide his displeasure. He takes it upon himself to make Rose and Peter’s lives a living Hell instead, rejecting their kindness and sabotaging their happiness to earn himself a sanctimonious smile of pleasure. It’s therefore easy to paint Phil as a villain—and Campion does so, to a point. Maybe to redeem him. Maybe to destroy him.
It’s this uncertainty that holds the film’s complexity because Phil is not exactly who he wants you to believe. His anger doesn’t necessarily come from hate, but repression. He idolized Bronco to the point of transforming himself in his image, throwing away the future that he had worked hard to create in order to pursue the one through the door this man opened instead. Phil consciously rejected the world George is suddenly bringing back into the fold by hosting parties with their mother (Frances Conroy) and the governor (Keith Carradine) in attendance. He rejected it so vehemently that he’s built himself in the image of someone that world would repudiate on sight. And it’s a tragedy born of the era (1920s), place (Montana), and unchecked self-loathing.
Phil sees Peter—a sensitive young man pursuing his education and bearing the brunt of homophobic slurs—as a kindred spirit. So, when George is out of town and Rose perpetually drunk (because of Phil’s unyielding psychological warfare), he takes the boy under his wing to make “a man out of him” much like Bronco did. What Phil doesn’t see, however, is that Peter doesn’t need his tutelage. As Peter later relates, his father once worried if he was too strong for the world. He’s cold and clinical to the point of unfeeling. The insults bounce off him to the point where he might not even hear them. But he listens and learns from Phil anyway. Maybe out of curiosity. Maybe to keep him away from Rose.
Campion draws this dysfunctional family’s dynamic in ways that prove surprisingly suspenseful considering how little happens from start to finish in terms of concrete physical progression or action. Instead, it’s Rose’s descent into alcoholism to cope with her brother-in-law’s malice. It’s Peter’s shift from creator of paper bouquets for his mother’s tables to dismantler of living things via his father’s medical books and schooling in pursuit of that vocation. And it’s Phil’s vindictiveness to treat everything as a game whether Rose’s health, Peter’s allegiances, or George’s gall in rebuking Bronco’s gift of purpose. The transition is slow yet steady as Campion moves our expectations from redemption to destruction. As we know, however, things sometimes must burn in order for new life to rise in its place.
Strength and beauty can either be at war (as they are in Phil) or in tandem (as with Peter). And those who get lost in the former’s conflict sometimes become blinded from seeing that the latter is possible. It leads to a magnificent central performance from Cumberbatch that proves so much deeper and heartbreaking than you might think at the start. Dunst, Plemons, and, especially, Smit-McPhee are wonderful in supporting roles filled to the brim with complicated emotions, but I’m not sure Cumberbatch has ever been quite this soulful in his rage and hurt. We see it in his eyes when silently pleading for George to come back to him and when his hard stoicism makes way for a delicate warmth that’s been suppressed too long.
Will he see it in himself to stop what he’s doing and share the love that surrounds him? That’s the real question. Because Phil’s idea of love no longer computes with theirs. He’s holding onto an image that’s in conflict with desire—one that sets him up for a fall. Campion draws it with expert precision, every detail we need to know to understand what’s happening lingering in our subconscious as organic rather than convenient. While the journey is slow and appears as though little is happening for a good portion of the runtime, know that every action holds meaning where the tragic happily ever after to come is concerned. True strength, it would seem, doesn’t come from outward displays of toxic masculinity. It lies within.
 THE POWER OF THE DOG: BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH as PHIL BURBANK in THE POWER OF THE DOG. Cr. KIRSTY GRIFFIN/COURTESY OF NETFLIX
 THE POWER OF THE DOG : KIRSTEN DUNST as ROSE GORDON in THE POWER OF THE DOG. Cr. KIRSTY GRIFFIN/COURTESY OF NETFLIX
 THE POWER OF THE DOG (L to R): BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH as PHIL BURBANK, JESSE PLEMONS as GEORGE BURBANK in THE POWER OF THE DOG. Cr. KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX © 2021