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Cumberbatch is very convincing as a rancher in 'Power of the Dog,' Turan says


The new movie, "The Power Of The Dog," casts Benedict Cumberbatch as a rancher. He lives in Montana, so the scenery is beautiful, and so were the costumes since its 1925. But there's something ugly about the way that he slowly turns against a woman, played by Kirsten Dunst, and her son. "The Power Of The Dog" is now streaming on Netflix. And MORNING EDITION film critic Kenneth Turan is here to tell us about it. Hey there, Ken.


INSKEEP: So what's happening here?

TURAN: A great movie is what's happening here. And you don't hear me say that all the time. I mean, the drama that ensues between Benedict Cumberbatch's rancher, his brother, played by Jesse Plemons, his brother's new wife, played by Kirsten Dunst, and her son, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee. This is classic moviemaking. This is great characters, great story. Directed by Jane Campion to within an inch of its life. This is just the kind of movie that people who like the best in movies are going to be delighted with.

INSKEEP: This is an actor, Benedict Cumberbatch, at the center of it, who many people admire. Is he doing something different here?

TURAN: Oh, my God. He's doing something completely different. I mean, he's usually thought of as a cerebral actor. He played Sherlock Holmes. He was Alan Turing, the code breaker in "The Imitation Game." Here, he plays a really tough, alpha male rancher, hard as nails but in complete command of every cowboy skill. And this is all stuff that Benedict Cumberbatch had to learn. He had to learn how to ride. He had to learn how to rope. He had to learn how to braid rope. All kinds of things that he didn't know how to do he threw himself into to learn. And he is so convincing in this role, you almost won't believe it's him.

INSKEEP: And without giving away too much, I guess we can say that in a way, the rancher himself, the character himself, is playing a character, in a sense? You had a chance to talk with the director, Jane Campion. What's she up to here?

TURAN: Well, she fell in love with this story, all the things I'm telling you about - how great a story this was. This is based on a novel, came out in 1967, written by Thomas Savage. A lot of attempts had been made to film it. None of them had succeeded. And so, you know, she has worked for years, really, to get this film going to film it. She did a year of pre-production with a cinematographer, Ari Wegner. They really worked to make this as strong a version of this spectacular story as she could come up with.

INSKEEP: How does Kirsten Dunst play this role opposed to Benedict Cumberbatch and not in this traditional sort of romantic way?

TURAN: Yeah. I mean, she's married to Benedict Cumberbatch's brother. And this whole situation that she kind of falls into when he brings her back to the ranch - it's a sudden marriage. And Benedict Cumberbatch's character is just really unhappy that his brother has married. And he sets about trying to kind of basically destroy his wife psychologically. And she just doesn't know what hit her. She's confused. She's at a loss. It's really quite something to see.

INSKEEP: How should we think of this? Is it a Western? Is it a revisionist Western? Is it something else?

TURAN: It's a drama. It's set in the West. The Western atmosphere is key. And you're just at the edge of your seat watching the characters develop, seeing how they react to each other, how they interact. This is, really, classic drama. These are classic virtues. We see them so infrequently these days, especially done this well, directed as strongly as Jane Campion has done it. It's really - you know, films like this don't come around every day. That's for sure.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking about the way that films set in the past, when they're really good, often make us think about the present. They're a commentary on the world in which they are made, as well as the world that they depict. Is this the kind of story that makes you think about now?

TURAN: You do. You do. But nothing about this film is heavy handed. Even though it's set in the past, and even though it has classic virtues, this is an extremely modern film. And its concerns - and I don't want to talk too much about them because people should experience the film for themselves. But what it's really concerned with ultimately is very contemporary. And it just draws you in. And when it ends, you're just going to say, wow.

INSKEEP: The movie is "The Power Of The Dog." It's on Netflix. And our critic is Kenneth Turan. Always a pleasure talking with you.

TURAN: Great to talk to you, Steve.

(SOUNDBITE OF JONNY GREENWOOD'S "25 YEARS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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