You know the traditional Western must be dead or mortally wounded when the
year’s two most notable examples or variations of the genre: The Power of the
Dog and Cry Macho are
attacks on what I call hyper masculinity (exaggerated machismo) and they also
include no action or acts of heroism in them.
Of the two, The Power of the Dog is the more thoughtful and involving film
(although Cry Macho contains many small pleasures and good performances.) The
Power of the Dog also takes on the weighty theme of the cost of repressed
sexuality and homosexuality in particular in the old west. In this way it is
reminiscent of Brokeback Mountain.
With all the new knowledge we have gained about the old west and how Native
Americans were treated it may no longer possible to do a totally traditional
western like John Wayne and Randolph Scott used to do.
The Power off the Dog which is currently playing at the Music Box and just
started streaming on Netflix was directed by the skillful New Zealand film
maker, Jane Campion.
She was actually the first female to win an Oscar for her film, The Piano, and
although it was a fine film, I think I liked her superlative biopic An Angle at
My Table and her drama, Bright Star (2009) about the poet John Keats even more.
Holy Smoke! the S & M psychological film with Harvey Keitel and Kate Winslet
was also fascinating. Campion just won the New York Critic’s Circle Award for
best director for The Power of the Dog, and some see another Oscar soon in her
Despite the untraditional subject matter, Campion shoots many scenes through
windows and doorways which could be a homage to the old Western master, John
Ford, who often did this in his films.
The film stars one of modern cinema’s most dynamic actors, Benedict Cumberbatch.
Most people probably know him from Dr.Strange but many of his finest
performances were for British TV like the Hidden Crown, and he was also arguably
the best Sherlock Holmes. The one trait that he usually brings to many of his
roles is overwhelming intelligence and arrogance, at least up until this film.
There have been many stories in the media about how he used the method and was
curt and cruel with other actors to get into character even before filming, and
he “does a Brando” and completely immerses himself in the character. Of his
performance in the film Campion has said, “There’s no Benedict there.”
Cumberbatch is often impressive but his psychological transformation here
playing a character far different from the type he usually plays is
The film like the novel with the same name that inspired it takes place in
Montana cattle ranch in 1925. Some people (not me) might be angered that this
American set film was almost entirely shot in New Zealand (which is where the
director hails from). But it can be argued that the old America this film
depicts does not exist anywhere.
The Power of the Dog presents a complex four-sided toxic relationship between a
sadistic cowboy, Phil, (Cumberbatch’s character), his more affluent and
compassionate brother, George, ( Jesse Plemons), a broken widow, Rose (Kristen
Dunst), and her oversensitive Peter, son (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
The two brothers, Phil and George who act as opposites co-own a ranch. When
Cumberbatch’s character, Phil Burbank, finds out that his brother is going to
marry a local widow his face transforms to a mask of complete loathing. He
torments her until she is a full-blown alcoholic.
Phil mistreats his son’s adopted son who he sees as a sissy. Later on in a
surprising turn he takes him under his wing, and tries to toughen him up, but
no one would consider the man a good role model for the youth.
The waythat Phil lovingly rubs oil on a saddle (as if it is the thing that he
loves the most) that once belonged to a male mentor named Bronco Henry suggests
that he is a sexual volcano about to blow. The scene makes as big a statement
about displaced desire as a dozen old scenes of Dirty Harry holding a giant gun.
All of this seems to be building to some kind of drastic action. The title
refers to an obscure Biblical passage in Psalms that a character reads which may
push him into an unexpected path. The original passage reads: “Deliver my heart
from the sword, my precious life, from the power of the dog.” Viewers will have
to decide for themselves who the dog is, but the answer should be fairly
The understated spooky ending is one of the most memorable of the year and
highly disturbing. But without giving too much away it won’t make much sense to
viewers unless they carefully absorbed the earlier clues that make it possible.
To top it off Radiohead’s lead guitarist/keyboardist, Jonny Greenwood (using
brass, strings, woodwinds, and piano) has produced one of the most evocatively
eerie avant-garde soundtracks of the year which goes perfectly with the film.
While I don’t think this film is either Cumberbatch’s or Campion’s crowning
achievement (maybe it hurt that I saw it on the small screen), The Power of the
Dog is still much wiser and more seductively powerful than the vast majority of
films I have seen this year. Also, it has a good chance of getting multiple
Oscar nominations, especially for Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee.