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Family Power

The Power of the Dog and King Richard

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THE POWER OF THE DOG. Montana, 1925: Brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) Burbank, heirs to and proprietors of a massive ranch holding, celebrate their 25th cattle drive together. Well, "celebrate" might be a bit strong. Phil, dominant, domineering and more than a little cruel, commands the respect of the cowhands and, though he is lost without his quieter, deferential brother, is also almost constantly abusive toward him. In the same breath, Phil can toast the brothers' success and simultaneously shame George for both his weight and academic ability. When he casts the same ostensibly manful disdain on Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) the quiet, bookish son of widowed innkeeper Rose (Kirsten Dunst), her distress does not go unnoticed by George, who begins a courtship with her. Mightily displeased, Phil writes letters to the parents Burbank, attempting to curtail the relationship, but it's too little, too late. George and Rose have quietly married and put plans in place for Peter to start at college and Rose to move into the ranch house (more a plains-Gothic mansion) with the brothers.

Seething at this intrusion, this trespass, Phil takes every opportunity to demean and undermine Rose, mostly unbeknownst to George who, after decades of such treatment, is mostly inured to it anyway. His new wife proves easy prey for the elder Burbank, though, and is soon enough self-medicating and confining herself to her bedroom. The situation is only exacerbated when Peter arrives to spend summer break on the ranch, where he is the target of constant ridicule and abuse from the cowboys, spurred on, of course, by Phil.

When, in the late going, Phil seems to turn over a new leaf — possibly due to Peter's innate understanding of some unspoken aspects of his inner life — and takes the boy under his wing, there seems to be some hope for reconciliation and reconstruction. Maybe, maybe not.

The Power of the Dog is Jane Campion's first feature in over a decade — Bright Star (2009), preceded by In the Cut (2003) — after a more prolific early-mid-career period in the '90s, when she was anointed as an auteur following the critical and commercial success of The Piano (1993). I've been more of an admirer from afar than a close student of her work, but it evinces a fascination with alienation, repression and identity, particularly regarding sexuality, often in bygone historical settings. The Power of the Dog, adapted by Campion from Thomas Savage's 1967 novel, is indisputably the work of a master of the form. The pacing of the story is languidly dread-inducing, with the ranch — both the manor interiors and the majestic exteriors, where New Zealand stands in for Montana — using the space between characters to create a simultaneous feeling of claustrophobia and of unbridgeable distance.

Cumberbatch is at the center of this narrative and he acquits himself quite well, thanks in no small part to the intimidating timbre of his voice and a face that looks built for Campion's camera. At the same time, though, it can feel as though he's in an acting contest with himself as Plemons, Dunst and Smit-McPhee quietly take care of the real heavy lifting of the narrative.

That's a minor complaint, though, especially in the face of a grand, sweeping-but-intimate Western that manages to channel a Henry Jamesian sense of psychological drama. This is elevated stuff, masterfully done, and it speaks to ideas of the un-illuminated life that remain relevant despite its setting. R. 125M. NETFLIX.

KING RICHARD. Will Smith's been all over everything lately, with this project touted as a return to form and a concurrent press tour for his recent memoir. I haven't read the book and only take in celebrity news from a great distance, but even I have felt a little inundated. Still, Smith is one of great American celebrities, a genuine movie star whom I still like despite his many, many inscrutable choices of roles. And he is the star of this movie, which is both exciting and somewhat problematic.

The eponymous king, Richard Williams (Smith) is, of course, the father, coach and career-orchestrator of Venus and Serena Williams, inarguably two of the greatest athletes of all time. As the story would have it — it's presumably accurate, as the sisters Williams are listed as executive producers — Richard decided that he and his wife, Oracene (Aunjanue Ellis) needed to have two children (after three older daughters) to be groomed as tennis champions. Weird choice and had it gone another way, probably an easily dismissed or condemned one. But the movie sets out to examine that decision and the family's commitment to it as a success not only because of its outcome, but also its execution. Because as much as Richard insists on his girls becoming champions and shaking up the world, he is adamant that they focus on their studies, treat each with love and respect, and, maybe most importantly and most complicated, always have fun on the tennis court.

This is a great story that is well told, if a little conventional in the Disney sports-movie mold, with Reinaldo Marcus Green directing from Zach Baylin's screenplay. There are attempts to present Richard as a flawed and complex person, but one wonders if movie-stardom sometimes gets in the way. Even if the performance isn't perfect — sometimes the Shreveport accent gets a little cringey — Smith is doing what he does in a setting that suits him and seems to be aging gracefully, finally. Ellis nearly blows him off the screen in their scenes together and Saniyaa Sidney and Demi Singleton, as Venus and Serena, act with a grace and depth of emotion beyond their years. Jon Bernthal stands out as a goofy, Florida-based coach who's instrumental in Venus' early professional success. PG13. 138M. HBO MAX.

John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.

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For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456.

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