The Power Of The Dog: A Visual Essay On The New American West

Connoisseurs may take note of a film released last December and currently trending on Netflix, The Power of the Dog, a gripping psycho drama, winner of Golden Globe and poised to take next Oscar, is worth seeing and I shall tell why.

It isn’t the kind of traditional Western with no gunfight or chase on horseback. A darker and grittier character driven film, it belongs to Western genre because it resides on the frontier of contemporary America, not in Texas or Arizona, but on America’s north west in Montana. It is a Western none the less as it’s about cattle ranching centred around a foreboding, oversized ranch house located at the wrinkled foothills on harsh mountain landscape without a shade of green, incongruously luxurious with dark interiors surrounded by joyless dry grass lands. Opening to a dragging interior shot on rails with the camera traversing from one end of the dark house to the other showing the mountain across the harsh landscape in daylight through many windows, it gives the feeling that this isn’t traditional Old West and something more gothic is at play here.

A Western is traditionally about wide open space, endless blue sky, spectacular mountain landscape with cowboys running amok shooting one another on horse back. Shots joyously wander on the bright landscape occasionally halting on a character or a structure from outside. The characters are as colourful as the landscape ready for the battle for justice between good and evil. The traditional Western is defined by classics, John Ford’s The Searchers, John Lee Thomson’s Mackenna’s Gold and Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West where the battle between good and evil was fought under bright light (more on the genre later). The Power of the Dog is, however, dark, complex and more psychological than physical.

The film’s title is inspired by the Bible, borrowing from a Psalm with Jesus on the Cross as it reads: “Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dogs.” The dog symbol is crucial to the plot as the protagonist sees the distant mountain across the ranch as figure of a barking dog. Dogs again are seen in Biblical times as unclean scavengers, a kind of stand-in for devil. This symbolism is reflected amply through the protagonist who is dirty, unclean and scavenges hides of the cattle. The Power of the Dog is about iron in the soul and its deliverance through and from the power of the dog.

The story line, set in 1925 Montana, involves only four characters. Brothers Phil and George Burbank belong to wealthy cattle owning family and have recently moved into the ranch, an all male bastion except for two females desperately needed for housekeeping. Taking over business from the parents who moved back to the city for old age. George (Jesse Plemons) is quite, gentle, tender and well dressed while Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is quite the opposite. Though a Yale graduate, he has opted for a rough weather-beaten life on the ranch, refusing to wash, castrating bulls with bare hands, skinning hides and weaving ropes out it. He rides roughshod over everybody and likes to control his small universe. He refuses to wash to attend the dinner with the Governor shouting “I stink and I like it”. He uses his intellect claiming to hold greater understanding of farm life and sees things existentially that others can’t.

While on a cattle drive the brothers with all ranch hands stop at the local inn for dinner and physical entertainment where they meet Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), recently widowed after her husband committed suicide, and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a gentle, methodic and sensitive boy with pronounced effeminate taste and mannerism that attract cruel taunt from the aggressively masculine Phil and his ranch mates. The cruel bullying of her son makes Rose cry at which the more empathetic George comforts her. Later George marries Rose and brings her to the ranch to Phil’s dismay as both Rose and her son disrupt his masculine universe. He accuses Rose as a fortune hunter marrying his brother for his money. George, too powerless to protect the bullied, sends out Peter for studying medicine. Rose, unable to withstand Phil’s cruel domination of the environment, takes to drinking to the point of being alcoholic.

The real drama unfolds when Peter comes home for summer break unleashing a domestic war of attrition leading to a shattering climax better not elaborated for the sake of those interested to watch the film. The film being a slow burner is a bit difficult to watch requiring patient attention. Once you are into the layers of hatred, domination and secret desires, especially in scenes around Phil, the game of wits between him and everyone else is almost chilling to watch. The film is worth watching for the intense and tantalisingly nuanced performance by Benedict Cumberbatch. He plays the Montana rancher with a rough hewn, menacing arrogance. His retreat to his secret hiding he slips into for taking naked mud bath is breathtaking.

The film is a visual masterpiece with most frames coming through like impressionist paintings. It pulsates with friction between within and without with its constant juxtaposition of rugged harsh exteriors and murkier, more mysterious interiors. Much stays unknown till the final minutes when all come to an unexpected shattering end, leaving the viewers in a confused state between brutality and tenderness.

The claustrophobia of the film and its lack of transparent external villain makes it difficult to place under known trend of Westerns. The genre has come through three distinct phases in film history. Phase 1 was characterised by White men defining good and evil for themselves in delivering justice in natives’ world assuming the Kiplingesque burden. This phase was dominated by squeaky clean white males embodying Christian virtues born to decimate barbaric natives. John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Gregory Peck excelled in this phase dispensing white justice.

Phase 2 is identified by Spaghetti Westerns with pronounced moral ambiguity where no particular race or ethnicity carried virtue exclusively. It was a dog eats dog world where neither the Whites nor the Native Indians nor the Hispanics held monopoly over virtue. Any one could be the good, the bad or the ugly. This phase was lorded over by Sergio Leone with murky heroes like Clint Eastwood, Franco Nero and Terence Hill being never sure what they were.

Phase 3 was started exclusively by Clint Eastwood with his own film The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976), which showed White men as evil for the first time. Such films came to be known as Revisionist Westerns where moral superiority of the Whites got gradually diluted in films like Hang Them High, Once Upon a Time in the West and My Name is Nobody through heroes like Eastwood, Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson. The whole thing climaxed when Eastwood made Unforgiven (1992) where Little Bill Dagget (Gene Hackman), the White sheriff of a curiously named town called Big Whiskey, came to embody every evil White men ever perpetrated in conquered land and had to be gunned down by forgotten old outlaw William Muny (played superbly by Eastwood himself). It fully exposed the dark underbelly of White frontier men where society has to be rescued from decadent lawmen by outdated outlaws! This was considered to be the end of Western genre and even Sergio Leone moved on to the city to create his masterpiece Once Upon a Time in America, a lyrical saga of organised city crime replacing western outlaws by urban gangs. However, with films like The Power of The Dog, we may be watching a fourth phase of Western where the lens has moved away from the underbelly of American frontier men to inside their gut and brain.

The Power of the Dog is highly recommended for those who love the genre and can hold their focus for two hours on a wonderfully crafted visual essay by woman director, Jane Campion, masterfully exploring the toxic masculinity of American West.

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