'The Power of the Dog' Reinvigorates the Western Genre

Updated: Nov 20

Despite being the master of the gangster genre with such films as Goodfellas, Casino, and The Irishman, Martin Scorsese cites The Age of Innocence as his most violent film. It’s a bizarre statement, considering the 1993 period piece features no sex, swearing, or physicality. Instead, the violence that the film harbors is purely emotional and under the surface, carrying far more damaging effects than any external wound.

Similarly, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog is one of the most violent films of the year - and of the Western genre - without a gun, knife, or fistfight to be found.

The year is 1925. The Burbank brothers run one of the most successful ranches in Montana. Phil is handsome, calculating, and utterly brutal. He lives purely for the land, paying no mind to the feelings of those around him. George is pudgy and sensitive, and always on the receiving end of Phil’s torments. Together they represent Romulus and Remus, ruling over a vast empire that could topple at any moment.

On one of their cattle drives, George becomes smitten by a widow named Rose. The couple swiftly marries and moves back to the mansion-sized ranch house. Disapproving of this union, Phil unleashes his cunning fury on Rose and her emasculated son, Peter. But there’s more to Peter than meets the eye, as his outward weakness may not be an honest reflection of what’s inside. After some time, Phil begins to warm up to Peter and take him under his wing. Is this latest gesture a softening that leaves Phil exposed, or another one of his mind games that will delve further into menace?

As a director, Campion has often been able to communicate the unsayable. Her films often resemble a poem more than a narrative. Based on her past features of Sweetie and The Piano, it can be said that she isn’t concerned with only opening one door, or telling her audience exactly how to feel. That ambiguity brings out the power of interpretation, leaving the viewer with the film in their mind long after the runtime has passed.

The Power of the Dog doesn’t stray from that trademark as Campion tightly wounds her surprise psychosexual drama. There’s a cutting edge to each frame, epically lensed by Ari Wegner as the vast prairies of New Zealand stand in for Montana plains. A shot of a knotted rope, the castration of a bull, or the movement of a cigarette tells as much of the story as any piece of dialogue. Every act becomes a piece of symbolism, carrying an intentional ritualistic weight. And with plucked strings, Radiohead frontman Jonny Greenwood (a notable collaborator of director Paul Thomas Anderson), squeezes the last drops of tension out of every scene.

Still, when the dialogue takes primacy, Campion, adapting the words of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, makes sure it still stings. Phil uses his words to cut those while they’re down, with a sharpness that cannot be matched. It doesn’t help that his cowhands, who worship his every move, sneer and snicker along.

In the lead role of Phil, Cumberbatch reaches new heights. The British thespian has built his career by playing the smartest man in the room, with roles such as Sherlock Holmes on television, Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, and Doctor Strange in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here, that supreme intelligence brings along its coinciding deficiencies of the emotional and empathetic sort. Branding Phil as carrying “toxic masculinity” would be too much of an oversimplification as Campion takes that weakness and spins it into something far less one-dimensional.

While Phil may hate himself on the inside, George is more outward with his self-loathing, which inevitably gets passed on to Rose, as she deals with despair by turning towards the bottle. The real-life couple of Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst are great in their supporting roles, as they find solace in each other’s arms in the brief moments they have together.

Acting as the yin to Phil’s yang (and also as the surprise actor showcase within the film) is Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter, whose external simplicity masks his internal strength and awareness. The battle between Phil and Peter is one of wits, with the outcome recontextualizing the film into something more than the sum of its parts.

Jane Campion has made a grand return to feature films with The Power of the Dog, crafting an enigmatic, modern take on the well-worn genre of the Western. It’s the film equivalent of a fine wine, as it’s near-perfect at the moment, and will only get better with age.

The Power of the Dog hits Netflix on Dec. 1.

-Hunter

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