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The Power of the Dog: Cumberbatch’s Monster Has A Formidable Pedigree

Image: Netflix

All the other stuff, the love, the democracy, the floundering into lust, is a sort of by-play. The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.

— D.H. Lawrence, ‘Studies in Classic American Literature’

At first it seems that Benny’s going to be all bark and no bite.

Disappointment and slight confusion hang over the first few scenes of The Power of the Dog. Ever since he first cut such a frostily fetching figure as Sherlock Holmes, some of us have eagerly anticipated the day when Benedict Cumberbatch would drop the Yank-baiting shtick and start actually acting. It’s been a long wait while he’s played so lucratively at sorcery and dragoncraft.

Stage work has brought mixed blessings. His might have been a brilliant Hamlet, if anyone could discern his presence and pathos through the murk of that muddled production. Frankenstein was almost worth it for him alone, but his beautifully plangent and eloquent Monster was drowned by the hype of Danny Boyle’s overblown and undercooked spectacle.

Cumberbatch as Frankenstein’s monster © Catherine Ashmore

His work in television kept the hope alive. While Moffat and Gatiss lumbered their leading man with increasingly humiliating bits of fanservice, he thrived at other assignments. Agnostics might be swayed by his lacerating performance in Patrick Melrose or his unglamorously unctuous take on Dominic Cummings in Brexit: The Uncivil War. Yet a cinematic triumph eluded him — just as the meretricious Imitation Game failed at its sole purpose, which was bagging Oscars. While his contemporary Tom Hiddleston balanced franchise preening with daring work for directors like Jim Jarmusch, Joanna Hogg, and Ben Wheatley, Cumberbatch’s gamely self-effacing turns in August: Osage County and Black Mass fell as flat as his American accent.

At first, The Power of the Dog seems to confirm the least charitable readings of his career. Surely the aristocratic Englishman has been wildly miscast as the truculent cowboy Phil Burbank. As rendered by Cumberbatch, the character lacks the heft and serenity of the truly dangerous man; as a bully he cuts a preposterous figure, looking like he’s puffed himself up to don a costume that doesn’t fit.

But this disorientation and discomfort were intended by writer-director Jane Campion: it’s not the actor who’s dissimulating so unconvincingly, but the man. Expectations are duly recalibrated; the spell woven by filmmaker and leading man begins to take hold. I’ve yet to shake it off.

Image: Netflix

We come to realise that the Burbank Brothers may be successful ranchers, but self-made men they are not. Their parents bankrolled their venture, for which Phil can scarcely forgive them. Driven by the obsessive and haunting remembrance of his mentor, a man named Bronco Henry, he has hounded himself into an image of masculinity at its most exclusionary and hateful. Such a man can barely draw breath unless it’s to belittle some lesser soul. Yet this rich kid snarls too loudly, with the strangulated ferocity of the late starter. This is the agitation of a man making up for lost time. His boyhood must have been hell.

The stilted foppery of his younger brother George (Jesse Plemons) is actually the lesser of the two impostures, but Phil treats his perfumed airs and luxurious tailoring as an invitation to a hazing. Cumberbatch comes into terrifying focus as a man whose hatred of himself and his provenance has curdled into a willed turpitude and an uneasy performance of barbarism. He plays the frontiersman in order to reject his Victorian parents and scorn the pretensions of Fatso, as he so cruelly insists on calling George. A bully is someone who not only lacks imagination but must snuff it out in others. “I am Envy,” wrote Christopher Marlowe in Doctor Faustus; “I cannot read and therefore wish all books burned.”

George soaks up the abuse with downtrodden patience. He knows that if there is such a thing as a natural hierarchy, he’s nowhere near its top. He’s been able to keep his hands so immaculately manicured because his brother has plunged his own into the dirty work of ranching, pursuing the inchoate hope of cleansing himself of genteel society and its contaminants. Cumberbatch plays Phil like a man neurotic with inverse mysophobia, who wears the smeared dust of the trail like a pilgrim’s ashes.

Into this household Phil tries to introduce some civilisation: a woman’s touch, and a sensitive lad. Phil’s campaign of hatred against the new pair begins before they’ve even set foot in his house. Rustling livestock one day, the brothers and their crew stop to eat at the Widow Gordon’s inn, where Phil humiliates her son Peter. Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee emanate a rarefied fragility that he can only yearn to crush underfoot. The decorative roses Peter crafts out of sheet music are, to Phil, another invitation to gratuitous cruelty. But what seems to be mere daintiness belies a merciless precision, as we glean when we see the youth pursuing his interest in biology. Making restitution for Phil’s hooliganism, George gets to play at the gentleman and stoop to serving tables alongside the lonely, lovely Rose. His proposal follows soon after, and mother and son are moved into the big house.

Image: Netflix

I don’t want to deny anyone the pleasure of experiencing what happens next. This is only the setup to an extraordinary hothouse drama and the stripping bare of an American archetype. Like D.H. Lawrence, the foreigners Campion and Cumberbatch have gleaned “the myth of the essential white America,” namely:

The miserable story of the collapse of the white psyche. The white man’s mind and soul are divided between these two things: innocence and lust, the Spirit and Sensuality. Sensuality always carries a stigma, and is therefore more deeply desired, or lusted after. But spirituality alone gives the sense of uplift, exaltation, and ‘winged life’, with the inevitable reaction into sin and spite. So the white man is divided against himself. He plays off one side of himself against the other side, till it is really a tale told by an idiot, and nauseating.

Unlike the monumental opacities of There Will Be Blood, Campion lays bare a soul thus nauseated. She also obliges us with narrative surprises and satisfactions more exquisite than any even attempted by Anderson’s impressive but finally confounding shaggy dog story. The conflict between Daniel Plainview and Eli Sunday is a collision of hatred and opportunism, but Anderson wants it to be more. “I am the Third Revelation!” screams Plainview at the end. What does that mean? There’s much greater intrigue in the pas-de-deux of Phil and Peter. Smitt-McPhee’s guarded, quietly ruthless performance is crucial to the film’s success.

The title is an allusion to Moby-Dick.

Once again, a piano furnishes Campion with a symbol for the attempt to introduce culture to a hard land. And once again, her collaboration with a storied composer provides the crucial musical dimension. Jonny Greenwood triumphs anew, surpassing even his work for Anderson with a score of jagged menace, frenetic disorder, and frightening delicacy. He had a busy year: the score for Spencer is another achievement entirely, a queasy set of neoclassical decompositions. No one else writing music for film is delivering work this exciting and original. Look at who he’s worked with: Paul Thomas Anderson, Lynne Ramsay, Pablo Larraín. Campion can coolly take her place in this company.

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Alexis Forss

Alexis Forss

Reader, writer, raver. Lecturer + tutor. PhD in English Literature.