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The Power of the Dog review: Jane Campion delivers a tricky, arresting neo-noir Western

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It's easy enough to describe how The Power of the Dog begins: with two Montana ranchers on a cattle run, somewhere in the vast American outback of the early 20th century. But the whole of Jane Campion's sparse, bristling Western noir (in select theaters Nov. 17, on Netflix Dec. 1) can't really be seen or understood until the last thunderclap frame.

The 120 minutes or so that pass in between play like a kind of master class in sustained dread, sublimated feeling, and toxic masculinity. The earliest scenes come on slow and strange, tone-wise, consumed mostly with the prickly introduction of brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons), whose relationship seems based at best on grim tolerance: Phil, in his dusty chaps and battered hat, embodies the lone-cowboy ideal, or at least certainly fancies himself that way. George is quieter but demonstrably kinder (Phil calls him Fatso regularly), a gentle, bulky man with no particular affinity for life on the range.

A pit stop for food and rest with the men in their crew leads to a boarding house run by the widowed Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil picks up immediately on Peter's vulnerabilities — the boy has placed handmade paper flowers on every table, and speaks with a telltale lisp — and runs with them, a bully a who loves nothing better than a target and an audience. But his malice backfires, drawing George closer to Rose; within days or weeks (the story's division into chapters never quite establishes a firm timeline) the pair are married, and the fragile, sad-eyed Rose becomes lady of the ranch.

Her hopeful overtures of goodwill to Phil are quickly sunk ("You're a cheap schemer," he snarls dismissively), and her loneliness is only alleviated, increasingly, by alcohol: in the linen cupboard, under the bedcovers, down by the side of the house. No one ever speaks about the past (or anything, really) unless they have to, though small clues slither out — like the fact that Phil has a classics degree from Yale concealed somewhere under his saddle, even if he vastly prefers to knot rope and castrate steer and sneer at the dinner table. But Peter's arrival at the ranch between school terms upsets the teetering equilibrium of their already unhappy home.

Campion, the celebrated director of singular dramas like The Piano and An Angel at My Table, hasn't made a movie in more than a decade (though she did helm the unnerving 2013 miniseries Top of the Lake and its 2017 follow-up), and Power of the Dog feels like the product of a long gestation, forged in endlessly peelable layers of suggestion and subtext. The dialogue is sparse and the scenery obscenely beautiful, the wide-open vistas of her native New Zealand standing in for circa-1925 Montana. Cumberbatch at first feels like he might have been miscast — too intrinsically British and cerebral for the cruel Marlboro Man swagger of his character. But as he and Smit-McPhee begin to circle one another, the odd thrumming chemistry between the actors clicks in in a way that feels almost inevitable.

Maybe because she comes from a country that famously holds more sheep than people, Campion has always seemed to be particularly attuned to the natural world — a horse's rippling flanks, a bend in a river, blood glistening on golden stalks of wheat — and for exploring the soft animal that lives inside most humans beneath their thin layers of clothing and civility. (She also, incidentally, continues her one-woman fight as an equalizer of male nudity on screen here.) Power of the Dog is in no rush to show its hand, and the film can feel almost willfully obtuse in its pacing and plot. Unless you're one of the few who's read Thomas Savage's 1967 book of the same name on which the script is based, there's rarely a moment that doesn't feel racked with the queasy, thrilling promise of sudden violence or epiphany. Pinning down the cumulative effect of Campion's slow-drip storytelling is trickier, except to say that being submerged in her ineffable world feels not just like two hours in the dark, but high art. Grade: A-

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