“The Power of the Dog”
Photo | Brightstar
“The Power of the Dog” is the best movie I watched this year. Benedict Cumberbatch is astonishing. Jane Campion is a genius. Between the two of them, they have created an indelible character in Phil Burbank, a sinister man who appears to be the stereotypical Western cowboy tough guy, but who has profound layers of experience, intelligence and pain beneath his rough and dirty exterior.
To say Phil shows another “side” of Cumberbatch, famous for playing hyper-intelligent characters like Sherlock Holmes, just scratches the surface of the complex transformation the actor achieved. The biggest surprise is in Cumberbatch’s physicality and the way Campion (the writer, producer and director) captures it. His movement is such a tremendous part of his extraordinarily realized character, a silent but vital aspect of a man whose character arc is entirely unexpected.
Campion’s take on masculinity has always been fascinating. Seek out her miniseries “Top of the Lake” if you haven’t seen it; Holly Hunter has some scenes with the male antagonist that I still haven’t stopped thinking about. Her lens of femininity is strong, but her examination of masculinity is far more nuanced than judgemental. In “The Power of the Dog,” it is revelatory.
In an arrangement that feels Biblical or mythic, Phil and George (Jesse Plemons) are brothers, living and working together in a large and prosperous ranch. The brothers often refer to their parents and have family nicknames for many people. Phil is extremely satisfied with their close arrangement. With his commanding personality, intelligence and gift of manipulation, he is in charge and lives life the way he wants to. George is not as fulfilled by their life, and when he meets Rose (Kirsten Dunst), he envisions a less lonely existence for himself.
The first time the brothers meet Rose, she is serving them and their cowhands in her restaurant, and her painfully thin, extremely gentle son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), is helping as a waiter. From his mannerisms to the paper flowers he made for the tables, Peter is immediately sniffed out as a weak and effeminate target by Phil, who mocks and humiliates him.
George, however, wastes no time in comforting and soon marrying Rose, upending the power structure at home. Phil intimidates, terrifies and torments Rose, undermining her constantly; in her nervous despair, she begins to drink heavily.
But the film is about much more than just how diabolical Phil is; when Peter comes to the ranch during his summer vacation from medical school, Rose and the viewer expect Phil to continue his taunting and torturing of mother and son. But like Phil, there is much more to Peter than meets the eye.
Campion shows us so much more than simply “toxic” masculinity. The dance between young Peter and his one-time tormentor Phil, the ongoing, minute exchanges of details, the calculations they both make as they trade and negotiate power — every minute was important, unmissable and riveting. Smit-McPhee is a worthy sparring partner for Cumberbatch, who gives the best performance of his career. As Rose, Dunst delivers a heartbreaking portrayal of a sweet woman who totally dissolves into alcoholism while Plemons (her real-life husband) is a compelling foil to his sinister brother.
What I want to emphasize, which I think is missing from the reviews of this film I have read, is that while Phil is primarily a cruel character, this film on the whole is not hard or unpleasant to watch — it is more fascinating than distressing. Without the complex layers to Phil’s character and motivations, it might have been just an exercise in endurance, but it was a breathtaking and suspenseful human mystery instead.
“The Power of the Dog” is streaming on Netflix.
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