“The Power of the Dog” may be set a century ago, but star Kodi Smit-McPhee believes his haunting Western drama examines horrors that still persist today.
The Montana-set movie explores the intense dynamic between a callous cattle rancher and a sensitive teenager whose families are suddenly merged.
“It expresses a lot about toxic masculinity, and it’s fascinating that this story was written 60 years ago, and the period itself predates the writing,” Smit-McPhee told the Daily News.
“It’s still relevant that the world has a certain expectation of what masculinity (is), not even in the world of gender, but rather what strength is for a man or a woman, and how it’s represented.”
Adapted from a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, “The Power of the Dog” introduces Benedict Cumberbatch’s Phil Burbank as a short-tempered cowboy in 1925.
Phil doesn’t approve when his brother marries a widow who brings her artistic son Peter, portrayed by Smit-McPhee, to live with them. The movie, out Wednesday on Netflix, sees Phil torment Peter after the teen arrives at the rural estate.
“I think the whole audience tends to see (Peter) as naive, or possibly a bit weak at times, but I really loved how he forces you to re-contextualize who he is by the end of it,” Smit-McPhee, 25, said. “He reveals that he has a great deal of power behind him, and he has a lot of pride and courage in who he is.”
The film also depicts the different ways trauma can affect someone, Smit-McPhee said.
“Peter, in his upbringing, went through a great deal of trauma,” the Australian actor explained. “He lost his father, and he had to take on the responsibility of supporting his beautiful mother. But also, he had to deal with that trauma, and ... I think he had the freedom to do that because of the environment that he was in. Very isolated in his settings.
“Then we find Phil, who was possibly brought up in a different setting, in a very prestigious, wealthy, university life, and he didn’t really have the same freedoms as Peter in terms of the traumas that he went through, in being able to deal with them face-on. He had to kind of suppress and repress.”
“The Power of the Dog” is the first film in 12 years to be directed by Jane Campion, who won an original screenplay Oscar in 1994 for “The Piano,” starring Holly Hunter and Anna Paquin.
Production took place among sprawling plains and scenic mountain ranges in Campion’s native New Zealand.
“She’s very good at making you feel uncomfortable in the best way possible to get you out of that zone,” Smit-McPhee said of the director. “That’s really rewarding. I feel like you can’t learn something if you think you already know it, and Jane’s a huge advocate for that.”
Smit-McPhee, who previously portrayed the mutant Nightcrawler in recent “X-Men” movies, considers “The Power of the Dog” to be his breakthrough role.
“The beauty of (the film) is that a great theme of judgment runs throughout the movie, and it says a lot about our society,” Smit-McPhee said.
“I think it’s a beautiful movie to see with a group and bounce your interpretations with one another, because it seems in my experience of seeing the movie received in person, which has been a blessing, that everyone has had their own kind of interpretations on who the villain is. It’s quite ambiguous.”
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