Directed by Jane Campion, ‘The Power of the Dog’ is a western period drama film. It follows Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) as he is forced to deal with the rapidly changing world around him. At least outwardly, Phil represents the so-called glory days of the Frontier era when America was still largely wild. Unfortunately, he is trapped in a transitional period, and the more desperately he tries to hold on to his world, the more it shifts away from him.
When his brother, George (Jesse Plemons), brings home his new wife, Rose, Phil sees her and her son Peter as weak and potential subjects of his torment. Phil Burbank is a multi-layered, unconventional protagonist. If you are wondering whether he is inspired by a real cowboy, here is what you need to know about it.
Is Phil Burbank Based on a Real Cowboy?
Phil Burbank is partially based on a real cowboy. Like the rest of the characters in the film, he is the creation of the fertile mind of American author Thomas Savage, who published the namesake book in 1967. While developing Phil’s character, Savage heavily drew from his experience with his step-uncle William Brenner, whom, Campion describes as “talented – like, great chess player and, you know, went to Yale, et cetera – but also, like, a really hardened cowboy and terrible bully.”
In 1920, Savage’s mother, Elizabeth, married her second husband, Charles Brenner, and relocated with a four-to-five-year-old Thomas to the Brenner ranch in Beaverhead County, Montana. There, he met William, his step-uncle, who clearly left an impression on Savage’s formidable years for him to envision the older man as a (partly fictional) cruel and manipulative Phil Burbank.
Although Charles adopted Thomas, the latter never felt at home at the Brenner ranch. He watched as Elizabeth destroyed herself with alcohol until he went away to attend a high school in a neighboring town. After marrying novelist Elizabeth Fitzgerald and receiving a B.A. degree, Savage went back to the Brenner ranch with his wife to help out as there was a labor shortage due to the advent of World War II. But their stay there was brief. Within a year, he and Elizabeth Fitzgerald relocated to Massachusetts.
‘The Power of the Dog’ is the fifth novel of Savage’s career and can be viewed as a fictionalized documentation of his own younger days at the Brenner ranch. One of the recurring themes in Savage’s works is the sense of claustrophobia associated with sexual boundaries. Savage, who has come to be regarded as a closeted gay man, seems to explore his own sexual repression through Phil.
In Campion’s film, the façade of masculinity that Phil so effortlessly uses is mostly rooted in 1920s’ America. As Campion says in a different interview, Phil’s brand of masculinity is extremely romanticized in American culture, before adding, “the Burbanks had one of the wealthiest ranches in Montana. They wield a lot of power, and I think power is always the real issue. It comes through with women too, when they have power and how they choose to use it. Power is always it. And money is often power.”
During production, Cumberbatch remained in character throughout principal photography, a decision that Campion stated that she was happy that the actor had the guts to make. It’s not every day that actors get to portray characters with such remarkable depth as Phil. Both in the novel and film, he represents an exaggerated version of a real cowboy.