The Power of the Dog is based on a novel by the same name by Thomas Savage that was published in 1967. It was this time that many filmmakers began to break away from traditional western movies that often starred John Wayne. These movies through the 1970s and 1980s until they lost popularity were called “revisionist westerns.” They were portraying the west as it truly was, bleak and dirty, not all good guys versus bad guys that Wayne and others portrayed it.
Savage himself was a well-known writer of novels about the American West. But what did many people really know about the Old West. Most of it was a myth. It was a myth that was mostly based on the circus-style performances of Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley. Most true cowboy life was a hardened life that consisted more of castrating bulls with your bare hands that fighting Indigenous people. It’s become more popular knowledge that the military did more than random cowboys to harm the Indigenous people.
The Power of the Dog is set in the mid-1920s in Montana where even there people were driving more cars than riding horses. It’s directed by Jane Campion and some people might find it to be very critical of men, but I think Campion is showcasing how men were expecting to behave 100 years ago than how they wanted to behave. The focus is on two brothers, Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons) who are wealthy ranch owners. Phil is the Marlboro Man-style cowboy archetype who lives a rugged life on the ranch, chain smokes cigarettes and has little patience for anyone who doesn’t share his same views on manhood. George is the more reserved brother who handles more of the business-style of ranching. He is the more sensitive and doesn’t command the same respect and admiration from the other cowboys that Phil does. Maybe it’s because Phil calls him “fatso” constantly through the movie.
One evening during a cattle drive they stop at a restaurant and inn owned by a widow, Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) with her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) helping her. Phil mocks Peter’s behavior almost immediately and even burns some fake flowers Peter has made that are on the table. Peter gets upset by this and so does Rose. When George goes to pay up, he notices Rose crying.
Later, he helps her with her business and soon they are married, much to Phil’s chagrin who feels Rose is after the money. George tries to do his best in his marriage by sending Peter off to study medicine and surgery. He buys Rose a grand piano but when George organizes a party with his parents and the governor, they expect Rose to play but she can’t. She later turns to alcoholism which George ignores.
When Peter comes off for summer break, he is still mocked by Phil and the other cowboys but soon begins to help Phil who insists Peter call him “Phil” and not “Mr. Burbank.” Phil constantly talks about his mentor, Bronco Henry. But it becomes apparent to Peter and us that Phil is talking too affectionately about this person. Soon we see images of Phil casually watching the younger cowboys bathe nude in the river. He even takes a handkerchief to go lie down nude himself on the prairie and masturbate.
The movie doesn’t really say it, but suggests Phil may be a closeted homosexual and had a sexual relationship with Bronco Henry. But having to hide this demeanor from other cowboys has made him bitter as he’s gotten older. Phil and George have been cowboy ranchers for at least 25 years and I feel because he was never able to fully express himself, he both grew resentful as well as putting on a show of the rugged cowboy archetype. That’s why he mocks George and Peter for not being “manly men.” Like Buffalo Bill Cody, he’s a showman who started living the lifestyle so much he doesn’t want the facade to fade. So, he continues to be short with people and get angry at little things.
Both Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee are great in their roles. Cumberbatch comes off so much as a bastard that he’s very unlikable. The only problem is that it spends so much of the first half building up George and Rose but gives them nothing to do in the second half. Rose seems to grow angry that Peter is spending too much time with Phil that it leads to a plot point I won’t mention. As for George, he seems almost to disappear into the background. Both Dunst and Plemmons are married in real life but I felt we never did see much of them. It never really touchers on Rose’s alcoholism the way it should.
At just over two hours, this movie feels too long. I felt Campion could’ve cut about 20-30 minutes from this movie and it wouldn’t have hurt the plot. Sometimes less is more.
This movie has already received rave reviews and it’s likely Campion will finally receive a Best Director Oscar. Both Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee should pick up nominations for their roles. However, after seeing this once, I really don’t care to see it again. It’s not a bad movie. It’s just as good as people are making it out, in my opinion.
What do you think? Please comment.