Tipped to win Benedict Cumberbatch his first Oscar, Netflix’s The Power Of The Dog is a cruel and brilliant look at the lengths we will go to to protect others – and ourselves.
The Power Of The Dog, Jane Campion’s Oscar-tipped gritty period drama starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Kirsten Dunst, isn’t just your average western.
The film, coming to Netflix on 1 December and based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name, is a tense, psychological slow-burn, one with elements of gothic horror, romance, thriller and queer cinema. But more than anything, it’s a psychodrama about the limits people can be pushed to, and how – if – they can come back from them.
And it is this delicate balance that makes the Oscar buzz surrounding Benedict Cumberbatch for his portrayal of rancher Phil Burbank utterly deserved, as are the nods for Best Picture.
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So much of the talk surrounding his performance rightfully focuses on how Phil is the kind of character we’ve never seen Cumberbatch take on before. In his most beloved roles, in Sherlock and as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, there is a meek thoughtfulness to them.
Though, like Phil, they are characters that are unable to, or rarely consider the impact of their behavior on others, his turn as the complex, tortured and torturing Phil is a true distancing from the figures that made him famous.
The year is 1925. Phil Burbank is a powerful and brutal man who runs a successful ranch in Montana with his softer, more refined brother George (Jesse Plemons). It is a place where men are still men and the rapidly modernising 20th century is kept at bay. The two share not just a house but a bedroom, so their closeness is threatened when George secretly marries local widower Rose (Dunst) and brings her to the ranch, where Phil begins a sadistic and relentless psychological torment of her, using her teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) as a pawn.
Cumberbatch’s Phil, the kind of man who sleeps with spurs on and castrates animals with his bare hands, lives a his hostile and humble existence according to the legacy of Bronco Henry,a revered cowboy and the “wolf who raised him”.
“He’s angry with the world before the world can be angry with him,” Cumberbatch recently explained about his character in an interview with Digital Spy. “And I don’t think he truly understands his own inauthenticity, the secret at the heart of him.”
As we watch Phil repress his emotions and queer identity, he continues to lash out at Rose, driving her to alcoholism, and bully effeminate Peter.
To Phil, Bronco represents the epitome of masculinity, and sensitive, shy Peter is the antithesis. Indeed, in one powerful scene, Phil regales the ranchers with stories of Bronco’s feats of jumping horses and slinging liquor while burning the delicate paper flowers Peter crafted for the tables in his mother’s restaurant, mocking him mercilessly while doing so.
When Rose makes attempts to connect with Phil, he cruelly tells her: “I’m not your brother,” beginning his endless, silent torture that drives her to despair.
So when Phil appears to take Peter under his wing, taking him on treks and teaching him how to weave rawhide into rope, Rose is understandably disturbed and seeks comfort in hard alcohol.
“Fight as she might against his mind-games, she can’t stop her son from falling into his company,” Dunst told Digital Spy about her character’s deep maternal instinct.
The constant, rarely spoken battle between Phil and Rose is one that rages throughout the film, but there is also a conflict for Phil to win against himself, of who he truly is.
Just when you begin to think that Phil’s arc may seem like one of redemption, there is an unsettling nature to his fondness of Peter that reverberates through their scenes together. It is only after Peter accidentally stumbles across his secret hideout, featuring male pornography magazines and finds Phil bathing alone with a silk scarf embroidered with the initials B.H, that the gravelly rancher’s attitude shifts.
Throughout the film, Phil functions as much as a musing on toxic masculinity as an indictment of what it means to be a man in a claustrophobic environment. “Don’t let your mother make a sissy out of you,” Phil warns Peter as he teaches him the ‘real’ ways of being a man.
But from lingering moments of lighting one another’s cigarette to Phil encouraging Peter to try out Bronco Henry’s saddle, his change in demeanour suddenly turns to something approaching lust.
“Everything is going to be plain sailing for you from now on,” he promises him afterwards.
But his treatment of Rose doesn’t change, and as she agonises under Phil’s constant sneering, Peter’s poignant voiceover that opens the film echoes: “What kind of man would I be if I didn’t help my mother, if I didn’t save her.”
The emotional culmination of The Power Of The Dog is certain to leave you reeling, with a devastating final twist that will have you gripped until the credits start rolling.
A powerful story of deception, redemption and desperation, one thing is for sure: this is Netflix’s, and Cumberbatch’s, best film yet.
The Power Of The Dog is released in selected cinemas from 19 November and arrives on Netflix on 1 December.
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