For most of cinematic history, femininity has generally been depicted directly opposite masculinity. As in, the description of females has always been a lack of something masculine: A lack of strength, smarts, or status. In The Power of the Dog, director Jane Campion takes this concept and applies it instead to toxic masculinity. She allows the audience to view toxic masculinity through a lack of positive traditional male traits.
Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is your traditional Western protagonist: physically fit and quick-witted, both with his words and his pistol. Yet Campion uses this archetype to show just how lacking Phil is as an individual. When his rowdy band of ranchers aren’t around, Phil is sullen, depressed and emotionally alone.
It is these qualities that make Phil lash out at those closest to him. He belittles his brother George (Jesse Plemons) by calling him fatso and questioning his manhood to appear superior. George however, is sure of his sense of self. He isn’t afraid to play the heavy when needed, or cry at a beautiful vista. It’s George’s openess and self awareness that challenges the concept of masculinity that Phil has been a disciple of for so long.
When George finds happiness and companionship in humble innkeeper, Rose (Kristen Dunst), Phil is set on a warpath to destroy the couple’s sense of joy (of which he has none). The cat and mouse that ensues between Phil and Rose is filled with foreboding, yet is surprisingly subtle. In fact, the film likely would have benefitted from a couple more face-off scenes between Phil and Rose, especially considering the palpable tension that is felt when Cumberbatch and Dunst share the silver screen.
The Power of The Dog is a morally complex feature that explores masculinity in a way that is rarely depicted in Hollywood. It may take more than one viewing to fully appreciate the film’s intricacies, but what would a Jane Campion film be if it wasn’t endlessly rewatchable?
The Silver Lining
The entire cast of The Power of The Dog gives their all to their performances, but Kodi Smit-McPhee particularly stands out as Rose’s adopted son, Peter. Peter is not traditionally masculine (he is likely a part of the LGBTQ community), yet Smit-McPhee delivers a quiet brooding performance that often puts Cumberbatch’s theatrics to shame. There’s a particular barn scene in the third act that had shades of Paul Dano and Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood, which is the last time I’ve witnessed such a young actor hold his own against a Hollywood powerhouse.
The Power of the Dog is releasing on Netflix on December 1st and in select theaters in November.