In Jane Campion’s latest film (her first after more than a decade), Benedict Cumberbatch plays Phil Burbank, a vengeful and violently cruel cowboy.
The period drama, an adaptation of Thomas Savage’s novel, is set in 1925 Montana and centers on two brothers, the volatile Phil (a deeply unsettling Cumberbatch) and the quiet, kind George (Jesse Plemons). When George falls in love with and marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), what follows is a turbulent series of events and Phil’s ruthless intimidation of his brother’s wife. The Power Of The Dog is a biting dissection of toxic masculinity, male ego and repression, with many critics calling this Cumberbatch’s best performance yet.
Over Zoom, Cumberbatch spoke about getting under the skin of a challenging character and building a memorable body of work.
Your character Phil Burbank in The Power Of The Dog is not the nicest human being. He’s this cruel hyper-masculine alpha-male repressing who he really is. So much of performance is typically about conveying emotion, but here it feels like it’s more about suppressing emotion and identity. Was that a different kind of challenge?
You’re right there’s a suppression of a truth, a sort of arrested development of who this man could have been in a more permissive society. But at the same time the rage and fear and anxiety bursts out in a very inflammatory way. I think he’s most vulnerable when he loses his control and really violently expresses his emotion. Whether it’s with a horse in a barn or with his brother, Peter or sister in law. But, I think he’s quite emotional. Especially by the end of the film when he’s in a flux of pain and anguish. It’s like watching a child having a tantrum. And you know, I think it’s a real thing, his masculinity. He’s not masquerading it or putting it on as a front. But, beneath that, there is a part of himself that he just can’t fully realise and it just eats him up.
He cant bear the happiness of the heteronormative relationship that his brother has with this woman because he can’t trust that it’s love because he’s never been allowed to experience that in his life. So, you kind of have to feel for the guy. Especially with the way Jane tells this story. She’s just a masterful storyteller.
You’re at a stage in your career where it really feels like you have the freedom to balance the Marvel big blockbusters with the smaller character dramas like this. At the end of your career, when people look back on your body of work, what do you want them to be able to say?
Oh golly, that’s a strange place to put myself in. Some kind of retrospective review of my work. No pressure (laughs).
I mean, I still pinch myself that I do this for a living. I really do, it’s not just mock humility. The fact that I get paid to do something I love, and on top of that the kind of stuff I get to do and the kind of people I get to work with. I’ve treated every job, I hope. as a progression so maybe there’ll be some kind of signposting of that when reviewing my work? I don’t know, it’s all circumstantial. There are some jobs where there are so many other things at play that maybe you don’t necessarily see a linear progression. But, I think this movie for me really feels like a step forward, it really does. The methodology and respect Jane created allowed for me to just go fully method on it was kind of revelatory for me and very freeing. It was really a joy.