Since the beginning of his acting career around 20 years ago, Benedict Cumberbatch has proven to be one of filmdom’s most versatile and powerful actors. Now, New Zealand’s Jane Campion (The Piano, The Portrait of a Lady) directs him in his most intense, nuanced and frankly terrifying role to date.

Hard-bitten rancher Phil Burbank is not a happy man. He’s a charismatic, intelligent bully who never misses an opportunity to demean someone weaker than he. Though he and his brother George (a perfectly cast Jesse Plemons) have become wealthy raising cattle in 1925 Montana, his unpredictable bursts of cruelty inspire fear in all who meet him. It’s not until about halfway through this gothic puzzle box that we get an inkling as to the root of his unhappiness.

His demeanor does not improve when George brings home his new wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst, in a career best), a widow who Phil accuses of gold-digging and eventually drives to drink. And it sinks to even nastier levels when he learns she’s bringing along her effeminate teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee – The Road, Let Me In).

Then, rather suddenly, he takes Peter under his wing, teaches him to ride a horse, and starts braiding him a rawhide rope. Where this exquisitely crafted film is going I’ll leave to you to discover, but the adage, “The strong beat the weak, and the smart beat the strong” applies rather well.

As with most of Campion’s films, the pace seems languid, unhurried, even disjointed. But the final scene snaps everything together in such a way that you may want to go back and watch it again. It’s quite astounding. On Netflix. (126 min)