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  • Writer's pictureMax Markowitz

The Power Of The Dog

The Most Honest Film Of The Year That Speaks To Where We Are Now

See It Or Skip It: See It

The argument could be made that toxic masculinity is in everybody’s blood. After all, it’s not just one thing, it’s been around long enough, it is in itself insidious cancer and we are all so broken over where we all are now even though most of us just can’t admit it - but how invisible is this venom anymore and how has it spread so far and wide? The monstrosity of kicking a door open to let some people out but keep others locked in is as normal as sipping your morning coffee and the “us vs. them” narrative is kept under reign by a blood-boiling hatred that’s defined our world. The ability to change comes from the heart and hearts can be stabbed and ripped out of our bodies if the hands pulling them are just firm enough. Jane Campion’s The Power Of The Dog veers on the psychological crossroads between surrendering to the ruins and running towards something else.

In 1925 Montana, wealthy ranch owner brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) meet widowed innkeeper Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) during a cattle drive. The kind and sensitive George is instantly captivated by Rose while the eruptive Phil ridicules Rose’s son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) for his lisp and effeminate mannerisms. George soon begins courting Rose and eventually marries her. George pays for Peter to attend medical school while Rose moves into the Burbank manor. Believing Rose married George for their money, Phil makes no attempt to hide his disdain towards her and takes great pleasure in finding ways to unnerve her.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance is scarring, barbaric, and undeniably perfect. A ravaging career-best in a film that’s as unpleasant in viewing as it is brilliant in quality. He approaches the character like a wild animal. It’s as though he tore Phil’s skin off his body with his teeth and he wears it like clothing. The physicality and the psyche of this man, go hand in hand, and Cumberbatch goes all out in revealing this broken soul's nature. Sadly, repressed homosexuality and toxic masculinity also go hand in hand, like cookies and milk. The first time Phil’s hidden 1920s style magazines of nude men were uncovered, I knew this tale of woe was not going to end well for him.

A repression is a form of grief. Grief for the person you are but will never be in the real world. There’s no one way to grieve and there’s no one way to be repressed. Phil’s repression took the form of toxic masculinity stitched together by his late mentor/best friend whom he no doubts harbored feelings for. He taught Phil how to do everything on the ranch and influenced his views on what makes men “real”: From the way, Phil drinks whisky to literally castrating a bull with his bare hands and rarely bathing (All of which, the method Cumberbatch humorously but uncomfortably acknowledged he did for real. He would not speak to anyone on set, he stayed in his character physically and psychologically, no matter the toll). The British poshness of Benedict Cumberbatch vanished completely into oblivion.

Then there's the actor that directors have always been able to count on for portraying characters in peril - Kirsten Dunst. Having been in the industry since she was literally three years old, Dunst has always had such an odd yet bewildering presence to her that always leaves you wondering. This is an artist I’ve loved and watched growing up my entire life. I have a real soft spot for her because she really is the actor that’s been there from the beginning for me. She’s the first actor I ever saw. She’s the first one I ever saw on the screen when I learned that the characters I saw on the screen were real people who were being paid to pretend they’re someone else. This was Spider-Man on my basement tv at my childhood house in Maryland in 2002 when I was four. I followed her work my whole life and remember being so proud of her when she spoke so openly about being treated for depression. Actors being able to talk about mental health and going through certain experiences is still relatively new. For the longest time, it was expected to be kept hidden. Young children now are growing up watching actors in Hollywood blockbusters who can talk freely about a wide variety of important topics. I never had that growing up. I truly believed that the packaged fantasy was the reality.

Dunst resorts into very dark uncomfortable territory in her performance as Rose, a good extent of which is perhaps all too familiar to her. Depression is literally like having your blood drawn from a needle. It drains out everything you have and makes you so tired and weak. There comes a point where you surrender to it but when you try to fight it, it makes you look like the crazy one. This is Rose and this is how Dunst does her justice. She’s being gaslighted by her new brother-in-law and by the time her son visits for the summer holidays, she’s spiraling into alcoholism. The “hurt people hurt people” narrative has such truth to it but it’s often too overused. The narrative works for this particular story and Cumberbatch and Dunst execute it flawlessly. Phil has such a foul disgust for himself that he needs other people’s misery to keep him sane. His psychological terrorism towards her has driven her to the point where she can’t make it a single hour without a drink. He looks out the window and smiles upon seeing her in search of a wine bottle that he probably threw away knowing she would go searching for it.

This is evil at its top level. In a different life and a different time, he could be a beautiful human being that others can’t get enough of but in Phil’s circumstances, he was never going to be capable of it. He is what others made him. He doesn’t know any better and he’s not pure enough or in his prime enough to even try and do any better than he does. He’s ruined so now he ruins others. The desperation Dunst captures in her eyes when she sips what little alcohol is left in the bottle, the insistence that she JUST HAD to find that bottle is precisely why I’m very confident she’ll be winning her first Oscar (It will be her first nomination as well).

Jesse Plemons is Dunst’s real-life partner and their chemistry is honest and adorable. Phil doesn’t drive a wedge between them but he separates them. George is the younger brother, is more sensitive, and just doesn’t know how to stand up for his wife. I wouldn’t say he’s pathetic but he’s very very weak. It’s a weakness that’s very honest and very sad. Eventually, it becomes evident that Peter (Who discovers Phil’s magazines and probably harbors the same desires himself) is going to either emerge as the unsung hero or the one who brings the whole house of cards falling down on all of them.

The Power Of The Dog definitely didn’t end the way I thought it would but upon reflection, I can see how what happened is how it was always going to end up. People make choices and choices have consequences and these choices coming from human nature make no difference. Not in Phil’s world and not in the world we’ve all found ourselves in now.

The affliction on display is so high and yet, the cinematography of Montana with its vast lands, tiny towns, and small population makes it look like it’s in the middle of nowhere where nothing bad could ever happen. Look at what our world, specifically America has come to. Isolation has its hardships but our world has gotten so loud in its viciousness, I know so many of us are longing for it. True silence. Hearing Phil whistle at the top of the stairs is the loudest I ever hope to hear again. The Power Of The Dog is the most painful film of the year and is all the more time for it. It speaks so loudly and says so much. We’re all Rose searching for that bottle. By the time we find it, there will be nothing left in it. We just don’t know it yet.

Weintraub, S. (2021). Benedict Cumberbatch on ‘The Power of the Dog’ and How the Film Rewards Repeat Viewin. Benedict Cumberbatch on ‘The Power of the Dog’ and How the Film Rewards Repeat Viewing. Steve Weintraub. Retrieved December 13, 2021, from

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