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3 Dec, 2021 00:03

Oscar contender ‘The Power of the Dog’ knows nothing about masculinity, toxic or otherwise

Michael McCaffrey
Michael McCaffrey

Michael McCaffrey is a writer and cultural critic who lives in Los Angeles. His work can be read at RT, Counterpunch and at his website mpmacting.com/blog. He is also the host of the popular cinema podcast Looking California and Feeling Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter @MPMActingCo

Michael McCaffrey is a writer and cultural critic who lives in Los Angeles. His work can be read at RT, Counterpunch and at his website mpmacting.com/blog. He is also the host of the popular cinema podcast Looking California and Feeling Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter @MPMActingCo

Oscar contender ‘The Power of the Dog’ knows nothing about masculinity, toxic or otherwise

Benedict Cumberbatch is seriously miscast as a rough and rugged cowboy in Netflix’s misguided meditation on the dark side of men by Oscar winner Jane Campion, which has attracted a lot of praise – most of it unwarranted.

This article contains spoilers for ‘The Power of the Dog’

There has been a considerable amount of Oscar buzz and critical acclaim swirling around the new Netflix film ‘The Power of the Dog’, and understandably so, as it stars one-time Oscar nominee Benedict Cumberbatch and is written and directed by Jane Campion, who won a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award back in 1993 for ‘The Piano’.

The movie, based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name, tells the tale of the Burbank brothers, Phil (Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons), two cattle ranchers in Montana in 1925. The brothers are very different people, with Phil the grizzled, hard-edged cowboy and George the more reserved, rotund and less respected suit-wearer.

When George marries a local widow, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and becomes step-father to her very “special” son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the story takes a turn.

As a devotee of the arthouse, ‘The Power of the Dog’, which on its surface appears to be an intricate, gritty, western drama in the vein of Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant ‘There Will Be Blood’, would seem to be right up my alley. Having watched the film, all I can really say is looks can be deceiving.

Critics are fawning all over ‘The Power of the Dog’, giving it a 95% rating at Rotten Tomatoes, but I think the only reason for that is because the film is allegedly a meditation on ‘toxic masculinity’ and it’s directed by a woman. 

For instance, Brian Truitt of USA Today gushed over the movie, declaring it “a picturesque, enthralling exploration of male ego and toxic masculinity, crafted by an extremely talented woman.”

Peter Travers of ABC ejaculated, “Can Jane Campion’s western about toxic masculinity and repressed sexuality win Netflix its first best Picture Oscar? Let’s just say that no list of the year’s best movies will be complete without this cinematic powder keg.”

The problem with these critics, and with director Campion, is that they apparently not only have no idea what great cinema is anymore, but they also have absolutely no idea what genuine masculinity is either, never mind its toxic variety.

The biggest example of that is the praise Cumberbatch is receiving for his portrayal of Phil, the supposedly toxically masculine cowboy who bullies and berates those around him with abandon.

I like Cumberbatch as an actor, but let’s be honest, he isn’t exactly the picture of robust masculinity. In fact, he is so miscast as Phil that watching him strut and prance around in his cowboy regalia and put on a faux tough guy pose takes on a most comical of airs. The main reason for that is Cumberbatch’s inherent delicateness and utter lack of manliness.

Phil needs to be a menacing, ominous physical presence, but Cumberbatch is a dainty posh Englishman, and with his mannered American accent he comes across, as they say in Texas, as ‘all hat and no cattle’.

Phil is supposed to be an emasculating bully – so much so that, just like Campion slaughters subtlety, he actually castrates young bulls by hand. But Phil comes across less like a bully, and more like a high school mean girl brat who isn’t going to beat anyone up, but sure as hell will say something catty and hurtful.

One of the main targets of Phil’s ‘toxic masculinity’ is Rose’s teenage son Peter. Peter is a painfully thin, very effeminate young man who dresses like a dandy and likes to make flowers out of paper. Just so audiences are made completely aware of how effeminate the character is – and also so that nuance can be completely dispatched and unintentional comedy heightened to the maximum – when Peter is demeaned by Phil and a bunch of ranch hands at a dinner, he responds by going out behind the house and frantically blowing off steam by using a hula hoop. No, I’m not making that up.

The film’s insight regarding masculinity and its toxicity is as deep as a pool of cow’s piss on a flat rock. For example, not to ruin the surprise for you, but – in a plot twist you could see coming from miles away like a steam train crossing the plains on a cloudless morning – the reason Phil is a mean-spirited son of a bitch is because he’s a closet case homosexual.

Let’s be clear, you don’t exactly need the most advanced form of gaydar to see Phil’s hidden, super-secret sexual yearnings. Phil’s sexual proclivities are pretty obvious when he’s waxing nostalgic about his dead friend Bronco Henry, as he delicately strokes Henry’s old saddle.

One of the few things I did like about ‘The Power of the Dog’ was its score by Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood. But even that has its downside, as it’s very reminiscent of his score for ‘There Will Be Blood’… and comparisons with that masterpiece do no favors to this flaccid film. 

Come to think of it, I suppose ‘The Power of the Dog’ is sort of like a cross between ‘There Will Be Blood’ and ‘Brokeback Mountain’, but just without the powerful performances, insightful scripts, or deft direction.

Ultimately, ‘The Power of the Dog’ is not man’s best friend, because it’s a movie about masculinity made by people who know nothing about the subject. It’s empty Oscar-bait and arthouse fool’s gold that is nothing more than a symptom of the plague of mediocrity that is currently ravaging the art of cinema.

So, don’t waste your time on ‘The Power of the Dog’, as this mangy old mutt needs to be taken out behind the barn and put out of its misery. 

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