Linda Cook review: ‘Power of the Dog’ is year’s best … so far

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Benedict Cumberbatch, left, and Jesse Plemons in “The Power of the Dog.”

It looks like a Western. It has the environment of a Western

But the superb “The Power of the Dog” is so much more. The finest film of the year so far is sure to win recognition at the Academy Awards.

Jane Campion fans – and I’m one of them – will recognize themes and objects from her movie “The Piano” in her latest work. She wrote and directed it based on the Thomas Savage novel. Its title references Psalm 22:20: “Deliver my soul from the sword, my darling from the power of the dog.”

The phrase has a double meaning here.

The year is 1925. Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is one of the most despicable villains you’ll ever meet. He and his brother George (Jesse Plemons) have a ranch. Jesse is quiet and thoughtful. Phil is a bully, calls his brother “fatso,” and mocks Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee, “Alpha,”) the gentle son of Rose (Kirsten Dunst) a restaurant owner.

Phil becomes especially vicious when he sees Peter has made flowers out of paper to decorate the table. Phil, with the other cowboys laughing along, sits at the table and sets fire to one of the flowers. “Ain’t that purty,” he sneers as he sets it ablaze with a cigarette.

Phil’s behavior makes Rose cry. This upsets George, who has feelings for her. Phil seems almost fearful of a relationship between his brother and Rose.

Soon Phil, proud of his own brutish ways, becomes obsessed with watching Rose and talking to Peter. who tries to avoid him.

To tell you more might spoil the film, which – with its themes about lost love, control and sexuality – is for a serious, grownup audience.

Cumberbatch, one of the finest performers onscreen today, is unforgettable as the tough-as-nails cowboy who despises finery or anything soft.

With its gorgeous scenery, its complex characters and one of the finest ensembles you’ll see anywhere, Campion has created another dramatic masterpiece.

4 stars

Rated: R for foul language, nudity and sexual situations.

Running time: Two hours and six minutes.

Streaming on Netflix.

Watch the trailer here

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