Los Angeles Times published today, along with new photos from the photoshoot released last year, a new interview with Benedict Cumberbatch in which he mostly talked about The Power of the Dog ending and what it was like to bare himself completely to play Phil Burbank.
Benedict Cumberbatch on ‘Power of the Dog’: ‘I bared my soul and my ass as well’
Benedict Cumberbatch knows you have questions about that “Power of the Dog” ending. He has questions too. Maybe they’re the same ones. But before he dives in — and this is a man prone to picking apart and parsing, so settle in — Cumberbatch would like to make a statement. And before we hand him the floor, it should go without saying that if you haven’t seen “The Power of the Dog,” which has been available for months now, you should not be reading this story because we’re going to be talking about the ending that everyone has been discussing and dissecting since the end of, ahem, last year.
Now that we have that out of the way, Cumberbatch would like to say that he very much hopes you felt bad when his character, the menacing, hyper-masculine cattle rancher Phil Burbank, dies at the end of the movie. He doesn’t expect that you broke down weeping or anything. (Phil wouldn’t want that.)
But Cumberbatch thinks people are taking juuuuust a bit too much pleasure in Phil’s death.
And while the 45-year-old actor can understand why audiences cheer for Peter (played by Oscar nominee Kodi Smit-McPhee), the young man who does a seeming 180 and murders Phil to protect his mother, Rose (another Oscar nominee, Kirsten Dunst), and avenge the way Phil mistreated her, Cumberbatch thinks people are missing some larger issues as well. For one: how Phil’s malevolence comes from a place of self-loathing and self-protection as a closeted gay man living in Montana in 1925.
“I’m feeling the whiff of a popularity contest in the reaction,” Cumberbatch tells me over a lunch conversation not long ago. “It’s reductive: ‘Phil’s the mean guy. Peter’s the hero.’ It’s not that simple. I think people better watch out for Peter.” Cumberbatch dips a fry into ketchup and begins musing about the future of Phil’s brother, George (Jesse Plemons, yes, another Oscar nominee), whose marriage to Rose sets the film’s plot in motion.
“Peter hides the rope under the bed … why does he do that?” Cumberbatch asks, mentioning the object Phil and Peter made together, the one fashioned with the anthrax-infected rawhide that Peter supplied, unbeknownst to Phil. “I think he’s going to kill George. Nice as George is, he’s still in the way of the Oedipal complex and the full Anthony Perkins takeover, you know?”
Cumberbatch is half-kidding, but it’s not the last time he drops a reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” in the conversation. I’ve heard others embrace his take on Peter over the past couple of months. Smit-McPhee, though, isn’t having it.
“I think murdering Phil is a one-time thing,” Smit-McPhee tells me. “Killing Phil was just something he had to do, and now he’s gone on with his life.” He smiles. “I think Benedict might be a little too close to Phil still, which I can understand. I feel the same way about Peter.”
In the film, Peter’s and Phil’s paths first cross at the restaurant at the Montana inn run by Rose. During a fried chicken dinner with George and the ranch hands the brothers employ, Phil makes disparaging remarks about Peter, whom he perceives as effeminate. Phil also burns the paper roses that Peter made as centerpieces. (Smit-McPhee believes Peter decides to murder Phil right then and there.)
Some time later, after George and Rose marry, Peter comes to the ranch to live with his mother. By this point, Phil’s psychological warfare (all that whistling and banjo playing!) has driven Rose to alcoholism, and the initial prospects for his treatment of Peter don’t look much better. Phil and the ranch hands taunt Peter. But to Cumberbatch, Phil’s motivation for doing this might have less to do with destroying Peter than to “rip the umbilical cord from his mother’s womb.”
“Phil’s teaching Peter to ride, to tie the rope, and he’s looking over at Rose, thinking, ‘I’ve got your f— boy and I’m tying him to me. He’s mine now,’” Cumberbatch says. “You could view the purpose of his recruitment as an act of tough love.”
While making the lasso on that final night together in the barn, Phil recounts how his hero and role model and “best friend” Bronco Henry once saved him from freezing to death by lying body against body in a bedroll. As the scene progresses, it’s clear that there’s a seduction taking place, but the power dynamic is fluid.
“Is there some real chemistry there?” Cumberbatch asks, still unsure of the answer himself. “Who’s in control? Is Phil allowing himself to be killed to risk it? He doesn’t ask where the hide comes from. He doesn’t ask about the cow. Is he losing himself in some kind of dreamscape where he’s falling into a memory and he’s suddenly Bronco Henry and Peter is becoming Phil?”
Cumberbatch likens Phil’s destabilized mental state to what he experienced when he came down with COVID after the London Film Festival in October.
“You’re just consumed by the illness, but, at the same time, you understand what’s going on around you,” Cumberbatch says. “By the end, Phil knows what the boy did and why he had to do it and he can’t believe he did it and is sort of proud and astonished by it and then, you know, he’s got a fever, so he’s fighting death. I really wanted to play with the space between those two things.”
The end comes quickly, both for Phil and the movie. The next day Phil doesn’t show for breakfast. George drives him to the doctor. The screen goes dark briefly, and the next thing we see is George picking out Phil’s coffin. And then, after the funeral, we find Peter pushing the rope under the bed.ADVERTISEMENT
“It definitely signifies that he’s holding onto something,” Cumberbatch says. “I love stories that are f— up.”
Did you grieve Phil? Cumberbatch did. For all the emphasis on Phil’s cruelty, Cumberbatch says there are things about the man that should be celebrated. As the father of three boys, he says he’d like to be able to teach them to be “so resilient in a world gone mad so they could be producers rather than consumers.”
“That’s what my ethos is,” Cumberbatch says, noting that he thinks often about what skills he’s passing on to his children. “There’s an amazing amount that Phil is capable of.”
Cumberbatch stayed in character throughout the shooting of “The Power of the Dog.” In an oft-told story, director Jane Campion introduced Cumberbatch to the crew on the first day of filming as “Phil.”
“You’ll meet Benedict at the end of the movie,” she added. “Benedict’s really nice.”
One anecdote that Cumberbatch hasn’t yet shared came on that last day of filming, which concluded with a shot of Phil lying in a coffin as the lid is shut. (By the way, Cumberbatch also would like you to grieve the way Phil has been shaved and dressed. “He has been completely de-Philled,” he says. “It’s awful and would go against every wish as to how he’d like to be remembered.”)
After Campion finished the shot, Cumberbatch stayed in the coffin for a little longer than he would have liked. He could hear glasses clinking outside. And then Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” came wafting through the lid.
“Then they opened the coffin and it was this weird celebration and f— up commemoration all in one,” Cumberbatch says. “I was so floored. Even now, I’m getting choked up talking about it. And, of course, I immediately went into stuttering English actor mode, super self-conscious because everyone was just kind of staring at me like I had just dropped out of the back of an animal. ‘Why are you staring?’ ‘Well, it’s because we really haven’t met you.’ That’s how wonderful my immersion into Phil was. They gave me the space to play this toxic but ultimately damaged and flawed human being.
“And that orchestrated ending was a really beautiful thing,” Cumberbatch continues. “I’d been naked spiritually, psychologically and physically in front of them all. I bared my soul and my ass as well.”
That made me laugh, and I repeated the line to Cumberbatch in appreciation.
“There’s the headline,” he says, laughing. “It’s something my mom will read and ask, ‘Oh, Benedict, why do you have to say things like that?’”