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THE POWER OF THE DOG review by Victoria Alexander

Astonishing, powerful and a terrifying triumph. All the Best Actor awards belong to Cumberbatch.

After watching THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN, I kept wondering why Benedict Cumberbatch would choose this film to star in. He transformed himself into an odd looking man with prosthetics altering his handsome face. Wain’s appearance immediately forecasts his lack of social adaptability. Cumberbatch’s production company had a hand in shaping the film. I adore cats and was not aware that until Wain came along, cats were not pets but rat killers. My rescue cat, Loki, died in August and I am still grieving for her. I have several shrines to her around our house.

It’s my New York jaded attitude to consider that Cumberbatch has a treasure trove of Wain’s paintings and a film of his life would enhance his collection’s value.

Cumberbatch’s performance in Jane Campion’s THE POWER OF THE DOG is mesmerizing and a shock. Once again, Cumberbatch transformed himself in portraying rancher Phil Burbank. This outshines Wain’s merely idiosyncratic temperament. Phil is a horrible man without any redeeming qualities. There is not a softness anywhere.

Stars of Cumberbatch’s status will play evil men but only if they have a good reason. It’s usually a tragic childhood. Cumberbatch does not allow us to forgive Phil Burbank for any contrived reason. No attempt at understanding Phil Burbank is offered.

What leading man movie star would play a role where he beats a horse and continually humiliates and spits at everyone he meets? Phil never addresses his business partner, his brother George (Jesse Plemons), without calling him degrading names. When his parents, Old Gent (Peter Carroll) and the Old Lady (Frances Conroy), come to visit, he does not acknowledge his father’s presence and glares at his mother.

Cumberbatch’s immersion in Burbank’s life ranks with Robert De Niro’s Jake LaMotta in RAGING BULL. Cumberbatch’s six foot height seems condensed as Phil appears shorter and bow-legged as someone who has lived his life riding a horse.

There was no stuntman or stand-in for Cumberbatch. He attended an intense ranch training in Montana learning how to carve out derricks, braiding, roping, ironmongery, hide-treating, hay-stacking, whistling, whittling, and banjo playing. Did he castrate a bull or carve up an animal? For those skills I covered my eyes. He learned how to roll his cigarettes as his character did using one-hand rolling. And while the other actors used nicotine-free herbal cigarettes, Cumberbatch used real tobacco. He refused to speak to co-star Kristen Dunst during filming -,on and off the set - since Phil had an immediate hatred for her character, Rose. He never dropped his Montana drawl and he refused to bathe.

“I wanted that layer of stink on me. I wanted people in the room to know what I smelt like,” Cumberbatch told Esquire. “It was hard, though. It wasn’t just in rehearsals.”

I bet if asked Cumberbatch would even admit to sleeping in his rancher’s clothes.

George is the businessman with a gentlemen’s approach to life. He has made their ranch successful and enjoys the pleasures of respectability. We understand the dynamics of the characters when the brothers and the ranch hands go to a restaurant run by a widow, Rose.

Her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) has none of the masculine characteristics expected of the state’s cattlemen. His effeminate manner and immature childish body gives Phil the opportunity to cruelly tease him to the delight of his cowhands.

Later, when George stays behind to take care of the bill, he finds Rose crying over Phil’s treatment of her paper-flower making son.

George’s constant abuse by Phil has given him an insight into Rose’s pain. Their courtship is short and they marry. Phil belittles George’s affection for Rose loudly proclaiming his belief that all Rose wants is the Burbank money.

There is only one thing that Phil reveres and that is his cowboy mentor “Bronco Henry” who taught the boys the philosophy and life of ranchers. Phil’s constant devotion to the memory of Bronco Henry makes the dead man a strong presence on the ranch. How close were they that Phil visits his grave and polishes Bronco Henry’s saddle even after twenty years? “Remember when Bronco Henry showed us how to make rope?”

Phil’s fondling of Bronco Henry’s handkerchief while masturbating in the woods indicates his brutish exterior is a role he is playing to live in a reality not of his making. Phil is a contradiction. He’s highly educated and rumored to be an intellectual, but refuses all the trappings of a successful life.

“Hey boss, tell us again how Bronco Henry taught you how to win a knife fight?” Peter joins his mother at the ranch’s mansion while continuing his medical studies. He likes studying dead animals. Rose is well aware that her son lacks the qualities to gain acceptance by the ranch men. He doesn’t even know how to ride a horse.

“Remember when Bronco Henry taught us how to ride?” Having made Rose feel unwelcome and embarrassing her when the governor and his wife (Keith Carradine and Alison Bruce), visit the newlywed’s, Phil frightens her when he unexpectedly takes an interest in showing Peter how to be a man. In Rose’s isolation, she begins drinking – much to Phil’s pleasure.

Phil’s manipulated interest in Peter slowly turns and Peter, while being innocent of tobacco chewing, has a clear insight into Phil. It’s a slow subtext turn in psychological dominance.

Plemons, Dunst and Smit-McPhee are all fantastic foils for the aggressive Phil. They are all outstanding and Campion has given all of the co-stars a jewel in their careers. With Cumberbatch, Campion returns to feature films with a provocative story and a star that gives her the skill of a gifted actor who is not in it for the paycheck.

Jane Campion’s THE POWER OF THE DOG is a triumph.

For a complete list of Victoria Alexander's movie reviews

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