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Toxic masculinity is mightier than The Power of the Dog
A force so powerful that it’s almost impossible to escape
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As a man, I’ve always felt the expectation to behave a certain way. Reinforced by my role models, family, and society at large, I’ve grown up trying to achieve the masculine ideal, to conform to the expectations created for me. My understanding of what it was to be a man was to be straight, strong, domineering, and to steer away from anything effeminate. But as a queer male, how could I ever be man enough?
The Power of the Dog
As the mastermind behind internationally renowned classics such as An Angel At My Table, Top of the Lake, and The Piano, it’s no surprise that New Zealander Jane Campion was the first female director to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1993. Her films are often deeply feminist, using complex female leads to explore desire, sensuality and sexuality.
Her return to filmmaking after over a decade away takes a tonal shift, in a stirring piece of fiction based on Thomas Savage’s novel of the same name. Described as an “interrogation of masculinity”, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog is a sensuous slow burn which uses the stark Western setting to bring a compelling meditation on toxic masculinity to life.
Set in 1925 Montana, the film is centred around Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), a harsh and domineering ranger. When his brother George (Jesse Plemons) brings home his new wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), he responds by cruelly tormenting them, bringing them to tears. However, when Peter tries to spend more time with him, Phil takes him under his wing, finding an unlikely connection in his company.
The battle between vulnerability and hyper-masculinity is a constant struggle that makes itself known throughout the film. Acts of tenderness quickly give way to acts of animalistic savagery, moments of love preface incoming pain. In private, seething ranger Phil teaches his nephew how to ride a horse, but in the open, with the eyes of other men watching, he cruelly laughs as Peter gets knocked off. It’s an experience I know all too well, when men I dated would pretend I didn’t exist in the vicinity of their male friends – demonstrations of sensitivity, of tenderness and nurture becoming quickly repressed for fear of femininity. Such is the toxicity of hyper-masculinity, which seeps in and poisons every act of affection.
Every character in this film hides behind a heavy facade. Phil Burbank masks his vulnerabilities under cruelty and macho-ness, and his brother George, uses his very own wife to escape the firing line. Even Peter, who appears delicate and untainted at first glance, hides a ferocious darkness of his very own.
And while the Power of the Dog is fictitious, set in an era and a place we can’t relate to, the inescapability and raw power of toxic masculinity is not. Campion uses her characters to demonstrate its far-reaching impacts, to show that it’s something we’ve all likely experienced in some shape or form, whether we know it or not. Toxic masculinity has haunted my every interaction, an undercurrent of darkness that drives my daily behaviour. Lacking the awareness I do now, much like Phil, I attacked everything that threatened to strip me of my ‘manliness’, employing aggression and anger as my weapons of choice. And like Phil, I took every chance to inflict pain upon others, because to hurt someone else was to hide myself from the line of sight.
Toxic masculinity is a dominant force, one that creates its very own legacy. As Campion demonstrates in this film, it’s a cycle that traps everyone it touches – weaving an intricate and inescapable paradox. To defy it is to succumb to it; to escape it is to embrace it – to be as brutal, savage and unrelenting as the Wild West itself.
The Power of the Dog is streaming now.
Watch these too:
The Harder They Fall, the award-winning Western which boasts an all-star cast. In it, outlaw Nat Love reunites with his gang to seek revenge, after discovering his enemy has just been sprung from prison.
Godless, a Western miniseries that is just as gritty as The Power of the Dog. Set in 1884, the film is centred around a young outlaw on the run, who finds himself in a small town populated only by women.
An Angel At My Table, if you can’t get enough of Jane Campion’s direction. This award-winning film is a dramatisation of Janet Frame's autobiographies, portraying the writer across three different stages of her life – from a dysfunctional upbringing, through her years in a mental institution, to becoming New Zealand’s premier poet.
And of course, Brokeback Mountain, for another emotionally impactful drama. Set against the rugged grandeur of Wyoming, the film follows two sheepherders through a forbidden and secretive relationship.
I can’t stop thinking about:
David Dalaithngu, who passed away on Monday. The Yolngu dancer, actor, and painter became one of the most recognisable Aboriginal men in mainstream film and television after a career which spanned five decades. “From his cheeky laugh, to that mischievous glint in his eye and effortless ease in front of the camera … his humanity is irreplaceable," his Australia co-star Hugh Jackman wrote in a moving tribute.
The 31st annual Gotham Independent Film Awards, one of the leading honours for independent film and television. Some of the winners that deserve recognition include Squid Game, which won it’s very first award with Breakthrough Series (Over 40 Minutes), and Maggie Gyllenhaal, who picked up Best Screenplay and the Bingham Ray Breakthrough Director Award for her work in The Lost Daughter.
Billie Eilish, who took part in her annual Vanity Fair interview. The fifth in the series, these interviews have captured the growth and transformation of the pop-singer since her first one all the way back in 2017.
Spotify Wrapped season. If your social media channels aren’t already filled with most listened to screenshots and aura reads, count your blessings. Not into it? Check out this AI by Pudding that roasts your Spotify listening habits instead. Apparently mine gives off “masters-in-creative-writing-nobody-puts-baby-in-a-corner-music-on-dramamine bad” energy. Attacked.