Appearances are deceiving and engrossing in ‘The Power of the Dog’

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For her first feature film in over a decade, writer-director Jane Campion tackles the American West in “The Power of the Dog,” an engrossing dissection of everything from masculinity to class, sexism, sexuality, and expansionism.

Exquisitely shot by cinematographer Ari Wegner and hauntingly scored by Jonny Greenwood, the film opens with an air of “There Will Be Blood” (also scored by Greenwood) before morphing into full-blown “A Streetcar Named Desire,” then flirts with “Call Me By Your Name” before landing somewhere between “The Beguiled” and “Basic Instinct.”

In full method-mode, a terrific Benedict Cumberbatch plays Phil Burbank, a cantankerous cattle rancher in business with his brother, George (Jesse Plemons). Each yearns for a life they don’t have. Once Phi Beta Kappa at Yale, Phil now embraces the gritty, grimy life of a cowpoke. He rarely bathes, braids rawhide into his own lassos, and castrates bulls by hand. He constantly evokes the memory of his deceased mentor Bronco Henry, who taught Phil the ways of the West. By contrast, the effete George yearns for the finer life, erecting a manse in the middle of a Montana plain and cladding himself in fine suits. He hires housekeepers, hauls in a grand piano, and hosts dinner parties with politicians. The two share a familial bond but have an uneasy relationship.

George also wants a family and unexpectedly finds his bride in Rose (Kirsten Dunst), who runs a rural restaurant with her teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). After George moves in Rose, the cruelly disapproving Phil sets out to emotionally torture his new sister-in-law. He extends his torment to Peter when he returns from medical school for an extended visit. The awkward Peter — “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” Phil derisively calls him — endures barbs as he prances around in high-water pants, an ill-fitting 10-gallon hat, and snow-white sneakers.

Campion examines the conception of masculinity in a transforming milieu. It is notable that while the advent of the railroad is usually used in film to denote the end of the Old West, Campion sets this film in 1925, with Model T Fords rattling amidst horses and serpentine dirt roadways bisecting across the expansive frontier. It is a tableau in transition, both physically and culturally.

When Phil takes a shine to Peter, their respective motives propel the primary plot. Phil wants to fill the same role for Peter that Bronco Henry once filled for him. As for Peter, well, his ungainly visage does not tell the whole story.

Campion’s turgid pacing lures the viewer into a false sense of lethargy, and slow-moving scenes seemingly ripe for trimming become fodder for a second viewing once all is unveiled. Like everything else in “The Power of the Dog,” appearances are deceiving.

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