Review – The Power of the Dog

Power of the Dog poster

Overview

Synopsis When a lonely single mother marries a rancher, the union draws the ire of his strong-willed brother. With his contempt crossing a line, the woman’s effeminate son decides to confront his mother’s bully.

Length 2 hours, 6 minutes

Release Date 17 November, 2021

 

Rating R

Distribution Netflix

Directing Jane Campion

Writing Jane Campion. Based on the novel by Thomas Savage

Composition Jonny Greenwood

Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirsten Dunst

Beginning as a novel in 1967 before adapted into a Netflix Original film, The Power of the Dog is labelled as both a revisionist Western and a psychological drama, genres which are on the rarer side to see in modern cinema. Netflix Originals don’t always get the best fanfare, but this one bucked the trend by attracting an all-star cast and was headed by Oscar winning director, Jane Campion. It quickly gained attention on the Academy Awards circuit and was nominated in several categories including Best Picture, with many predicting it would take out the top prize. They were wrong.

Along with CODA’s shock win, The Power of the Dog also missed out of awards in many other categories, only taking home Best Director. For a film that was set up for a sweep, the night proved as a disappointment. For a film that attracted so much buzz over the course of a year, it has quickly dwindled in the months since the Awards ceremony. With not many golden statuettes to its name, what is The Power of the Dog’s real legacy and how will it be remembered in film history?

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: The Power of the Dog is a Western drama set on a ranch in 1920s Montana. As such, a rancher’s life is detailed, which includes interactions with farmyard animals, some of which viewers may find cruel (castrating a bull using older procedures, whipping of horses, images of dead cattle, skins of cattle are lined up). One character is studying medicine and is seen dissecting animals such as rabbits. One rabbit is euthanised by having its neck snapped (off screen). A man psychologically terrorizes a woman. An effeminate teen is bullied by adults. Close up shots on festering wounds. A suicide is mentioned. Murder through deceit is committed.

Language/Crude Humor: No f-bombs or s-words, but insults are hurled with frequency, including misogynistic language, homophobic slurs, fat shaming, and God’s name is used in vain.

Drug/Alcohol References: Characters frequently smoke tobacco and drink alcohol, one of which might be underage. One character drinks to excess, and their alcoholic tendencies become a plot point.

Sexual Content: A couple can be overheard having intercourse. Sex workers tempt men in a bar. Male nudity during a non-sexual bathing scene. A man touches himself at the start of masturbation. A past homosexual relationship is described with fondness, however due to the ages of the characters, it’s questionably sexual grooming. A homosexual relationship develops between two men, although there is a massive age difference.

Spiritual Content: The title of the film is based off Psalm 22:20. A character is seen reading that passage in their Bible. Viewers may debate the film’s usage of the passage, as to whom represents the dog, the darling, and the speaker, and whether Psalm 22’s reflection of Christ’s crucifixion plays a part.

Other Negative Content:  Phil is a strong character that bullies others. If he’s not demeaning them with his language, then he is either setting them up for embarrassment or otherwise psychologically tormenting them by his intimidating presence. Phil also is unkind/racist towards Native Americans.

Positive Content: The film humanizes its flawed characters by taking the time to explore each person’s innermost thoughts and motivations, allowing viewers to understand (but not necessarily condone) despicable acts, in the hopes of breaking down toxic stereotypes which only lead to destruction.

Review

I have a problem. Ever since the pandemic started, forcing cinemas around the world to close and causing audiences to increase their usage of streaming services, I’ve found my concentration span to wildly dwindle. I heard great things about The Power of the Dog. I love westerns. But when I sat down to watch this film, I started and stopped. Started and stopped. It’s all too easy on Netflix to just pause the film and engage in whatever random thought or impulse flits across the mind. I found the first fifteen minutes of this film to be a struggle. But stick with it. Trust me.

The Power of the Dog is instantly uncomfortable. Benedict Cumberbatch commands the screen as boorish rancher Phil Burbank, in a role that bristles with unfamiliarity. His accent is thick and so is his swagger, and it takes the audience a moment to grow accustomed to Cumberbatch’s performance. In a genre that’s laden with legendary hero archetypes, it’s off-putting to actively search for a likeable character within the movie’s opening scenes where one is normally highlighted front and center.

The early upending of expectations repels viewers for a few moments whilst they quickly grapple to figure out what this film is about. Thankfully one can ease into this ultimately riveting narrative once the four main players have been established. At its core the main conflict features a status battle. Phil Burbank is a loathsome man that commands respect through intimidation, bullying, and psychological warfare. He is the complete opposite to his softly-spoken and well-guarded brother, George, played to perfection by Jesse Plemons, but unfortunately vacates the narrative all too early. Then there’s Rose, portrayed by Kirsten Dunst, in a role that’s more submissive than her usual repertoire of characters. She’s a kind-hearted but easily unsettled saloon owner, who runs it alongside her effeminate and lanky-built teenage son, Peter, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, who like all the other actors mentioned was nominated for an Oscar for their performance.

Like the chapters of a book, each character deals with Phil’s brutish behaviour in different ways. First up is George who largely seems to disengage with conflict and skirts around his brother’s influence. Next is Rose who tries to appease with kindness and good manners, though her character quickly crumples under the weight of Phil’s ceaseless torment. Recognizing Phil as a problem needing to dealt with, Peter is the last to essentially face off against the ranch’s big bully.

Already juicy with drama when it came to character conflict, when Peter steps into the fray around the midpoint of the film, the narrative doubles down yet again, creating a status battle for the ages. Phil may have the power and brawn, but Peter is the more perceptive character, with a wit and emotional intelligence that outmatches Phil. The Power of the Dog spends a great deal of time establishing its characters, so it’s an absolute delight when it tosses the audience a new piece of information that completely overhauls the viewer’s perception of the characters thus far and fleshes their motivations out to a whole different level. The status battle shifts wildly, and for a moment the cat and mouse game is forgotten entirely until the film’s jaw-dropping conclusion.

Set against a gorgeous backdrop (which is actually New Zealand) with cinematography that pays homage and even challenges the best examples in the genre, The Power of the Dog is a tightly woven and rather self-contained drama that’s told well. It’s further evidence that conflict doesn’t necessarily have to feature a large-scale event with external consequences, rather a great story can be explored through the clashing of well-realized personalities. There is a Bible verse that is attached to the story, and while that may add another layer of meaning for those that wish to dig even further, the film is still a stimulating ride even when viewed through its most basic interpretation. It’s a rough start, but it’s well worth pushing through the plot.

Aside from its intriguing narrative in itself, there is another reason why this film gained Oscar attention, though to discuss this further, I will need to reveal the midpoint twist, which is a bit of a spoiler for those that haven’t heard anything about this film from its subsequent press releases. For those that wish to enter into this film without that knowledge, let us part ways here. I hope you enjoy the film and appreciate this dark drama with a stunning western backdrop.

Warning: Mid-film spoilers ahead!

There are many that have started comparing The Power of the Dog with Brokeback Mountain mainly because both stories feature gay cowboys. The Power of the Dog’s Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards only furthered amused remarks with some joking that featuring a gay cowboy is an award-winning combination; part of a secret formula to gain accolades and nominations. While it’s all facetious chatter, there is some merit in comparing the two films and what they contribute and reflect upon society.

Brokeback Mountain came at a time when LGBT narratives were only just starting to become mainstream; in fact, the film was a major contributor on that front. Beforehand, homosexuals, if they weren’t portrayed as the villain, then they were similar in stature to The Power of the Dog’s Peter—effeminate men that didn’t fit inside a traditionally “masculine” image. There was a stereotype that existed that didn’t serve to help anybody. While television shows like Dawson’s Creek helped to chip away at that falsehood, it was the idea that a “masculine” icon such as a cowboy could also be gay that really shook society’s understanding of sexuality.

For many in the LGBT community, Brokeback Mountain was the first film where they felt heard and represented in a more realistic and serious fashion. As a result, many latched onto it and elevated the film higher than what I personally thought it deserved. I’ve only seen the film once and it was over a decade ago, so it’s a little hard to judge, but if I were to revisit the movie, I suspect at its core it’s merely an average “forbidden love” story that was overhyped thanks to its timing in popular culture. I’d be curious to watch it again to see how it holds up in modern times, but I remember that my cinematic experience was different compared to others. I recall many people felt compelled to yell out things in “support” during the screening I visited, no doubt enamoured and empowered by its bold and counter-cultural depiction of homosexuality on screen. It was the misogynistic slurs that were hurled by audience members towards Michelle Williams’ character which ultimately tainted my view of the film. I’ve always had a pet peeve against narratives that seemingly promote adultery, where very few films have pulled it off (oddly enough, Jane Campion’s previous film The Piano is one of them), and Brokeback Mountain was essentially a story where lust destroyed the lives of not only the main protagonists but also those around them. Centrally it’s a tragic tale though it has gone down in history as something more palatable due to its popularity at the time.

Enter The Power of the Dog which has other goals on its mind. This time around the film exists in a world where homosexual stereotypes have not only been shattered, but LGBT representation is all but expected in modern media. Post-Brokeback Mountain, there have been huge LGBT-focussed political movements and positive public relation campaigns, creating a solid decade of cinema where homosexual characters were purposefully sanitized to the extent of lacking flaws, causing television shows such as Scream to remark they were the new unkillable characters in horror films. Written to perfection and scrubbed of anything that could be deemed unlikeable, some LGBT characters in mainstream films felt shallow and unrealistic, lacking the grit of life whilst their presence was crafted to push an agender. In many ways it oddly mirrored the journey of Christian media, where there was a period of time where the art from Christian circles came across as disingenuous and even leaned into propaganda, deriving from a fear or lack of trust in the audience to navigate the harder questions or explore and temper a character’s human flaws. No one likes to be beaten over the head with an insincere message or visibly coerced into a positive relationship with a flat narrative’s character.

Thankfully over the past few years the paranoia that showing the faults and flaws of a LGBT character somehow equates to a negative image of the community has lifted, where art can finally regain its authenticity once more. Just how Brokeback Mountain was a frontrunner for a cultural shift in LGBT representation, so too is The Power of the Dog, as aside from the blundering Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, it’s the first film in a long while to open up representation within other roles of the narrative, i.e. the villain. As a result, Phil Burbank is one of the most complex and intriguing characters in modern cinema. His homosexuality is no excuse for his behaviour, however it does masterfully reveal another whole layer to his psyche, his worldview, his innermost fears, and provides an explanation for his actions and motivations. While it seems gay cowboys are destined to be drawn as tragic figures, Phil Burbank is impeccably more interesting and intellectually stimulating than both of the two protagonists in Brokeback Mountain put together.

Just how Brokeback Mountain broke stereotypes, The Power of the Dog upends the new stereotypes of the modern era. In some ways it retreads the same ground: it reminds audiences that effeminate boys aren’t automatically gay, and masculine men can be attracted to other men. But in a culture that’s obsessed with the perception of its image, The Power of the Dog presents one of the most vile characters in the last few years to exist in fiction. And he’s gay. And that’s okay. There’s a delectable darkness to the story that dares to explore some lesser discussed topics, such as the impact of internalized shame and the loathing that comes with it, the need to overcompensate to survive in a hyper-masculine environment, and the questionable role of whether sexual abuse is a factor. By the conclusion of the film, Phil Burbank is such a well-realized and deeply developed character that the ending feels culturally off-limits, as the tactics used against him come across as cruel and unfair. While he has it coming, it’s tragic nonetheless, forcing audiences to rethink their perception as to whom was the hero and the villain of the piece. Phil’s brutish persona has melted away to the point of exuding some warmth, while Peter’s once sympathetic predicament turns shudderingly cold in the light of his calculating methodology. It’s a film that presents the many shades of darkness within humanity, where each character is understandable yet deeply flawed.

Personally I find The Power of the Dog to be the better “gay cowboy” film. It’s simply the more complex piece of storytelling thanks in part to its namesake. Christians in particular will debate what exactly the film is trying to say given the title is linked with a verse in Scripture. I’ve read a few theories though none I’ve found to be completely satisfactory, and I think it’s because the verse can have a deeper meaning than what the film/screenwriter/author demands. I find myself leaning more towards a double meaning; both a literal and partly ironic interpretation. “The power of the dog” could simply reflect the moment in the story when the shift of power begins, where Peter uncovers Phil’s weakness and essentially starts to use the man’s own psychological tactics against him. It’s a pivotal scene. But going more Biblical, I do believe the film incorporates the idea of a deliverance from evil, though the audience is left to question the cost. On a more secular level, The Power of the Dog displays a lot of behaviour which many in society nowadays would deem as examples of toxic masculinity, though the film does beg the question as to whether its replacement is something more sinister. Thankfully the film is primarily invested in telling a good story and isn’t directly linked into any current ideologies or political movements unlike some other modern movies, which means it should age well.

However, Brokeback Mountain will still be the more “memorable” film as it was the first of its kind for the trope. It cannot be denied it left an indelible mark on society; first adored, awarded, critiqued, and then mocked as it’s fondly quoted, as is the path for most successful films. It will always overshadow The Power of the Dog in some capacity. It can already be seen to some extent because The Power of the Dog did not win Best Picture—although Jane Campion rightfully was awarded for her direction—and due to it being a Netflix release which still has negative connotations, it’s already starting to recede from the forefront of conversation. It’s a beautifully shot western with a riveting drama that unfortunately will be relegated to “Best Netflix Original” lists.

Positives

+ Direction
+ Amazing ensemble cast
+ Cinematography
+ Gripping drama
+ Well-rounded characters
+ Intriguing villain

Negatives

- Benedict Cumberbatch's performance is initially off-putting
- Hard to settle into the narrative
- Some may not welcome the mid-story twist
- Application of Scripture feels clumsy

The Bottom Line

The Power of the Dog is initially a hard watch although it ends up being deeply rewarding. A gorgeous example of cinematography, acting, and directing, it’s all pulled together by the drama of the power struggles between its central characters. It’s just a shame that another film will always haunt its legacy.

 

8.2

Juliana Purnell

After obtaining a Bachelor of Dramatic Arts, Juliana Purnell has enjoyed a successful acting career, working within theme parks, businesses, and on film sets. She has also taken on crew roles, both in film and theatrical productions. When Juliana isn't working, she enjoys watching movies of all genres at the cinema, writing, and playing with Samson, her pomeranian.

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