Benedict Cumberbatch has played all manner of iconic roles, but in his most recent film The Power of the Dog, the actor was faced with his biggest challenge yet. Playing Phil Burbank, an intimidating rancher with a knack for bullying those closest to him, Cumberbatch presents a horrifying portrayal of a man leaning in to the toxic masculinity that was ingrained in his upbringing. For viewers, it’s hard to watch at times, but it also serves as an important reminder that there’s much to be done and for Cumberbatch, the role was one that presented an opportunity for men to realise they need to “fix” their behaviour. Now, the actor is getting candid about toxic masculinity and why it needs to be addressed, not just for those in positions of power, but for all men who recognise the behaviour in themselves, or their mates.
In an interview with Sky News, Cumberbatch explained: “You get this sort of rebellion aspect [from men today], this denial, this sort of childish defensive position of ‘not all men are bad’. But no, we just have to shut up and listen.” The actor also noted how “there is not enough recognition of abuse” or the disadvantages people face at the receiving end of this behaviour, and that “somewhere along the line we need to do maybe what the film does as well, which examines the reason behind this oppressive behaviour.”
The film, written and directed by Jane Campion, has met critical acclaim. Set in 1967, the western tells the story of a cattle rancher who unexpectedly falls for the young son of a widow, played by Kirsten Dunst, who recently moved to his ranch. The character grapples with his sexuality in an era and place that emphasises binary gender roles and expectations. “He had this burning love affair in his youth, which wasn’t tolerated, which wasn’t allowed, couldn’t be spoken of and the tragedy of that is what twists him into this sort of form of masculine toxicity,” Cumberbatch told reporters at the New York Film Festival premiere.
Cumberbatch explained that the character’s toxic masculinity made him project “hate on the world, and for the world, hate on him, and I think his sense of loneliness is exacerbated by that and his sense of jealousy.” The star added that the period the film is set “speaks to a time of intolerance and a lack of acceptance where people couldn’t live any kind of their authentic self.”
But while Campion’s work is powerful, Hollywood is still grappling with a crisis. The industry is still largely dominated by men (most of whom are white), and while The Guardian reports that there are more women than ever working in film, there are far fewer narrative-driven roles written for female leads than there are for male leads. Campion might have become the first female filmmaker to win a Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1993, but there is still much work to be done to ensure the industry is truly equal.
“It’s like mental health, you know, these things are still a stigma,” said Cumberbatch, referring to the experience of women in the film industry. “There’s still something that needs talking about, needs addressing, needs writing, help with, and until there is equal pay, a place at the table, equality across the board of every kind, we still have to have that conversation.”
The Power of the Dog lands on Netflix December 1.