NYFF Review: ‘The Power of the Dog’ Redefines the Western
Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog adapts Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name, following a family living on a ranch in 1925 Montana. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Phil Burbank, a rugged cowboy, emotions repressed to his very core. Phil finds his self-hatred growing, taking it out on his step-nephew, Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Peter. What begins as a classic lone wolf story evolves into a character study that sets a new gold standard for westerns.
I’ll be the first to admit that the western genre is far from my favorite. Much of that has to do with the “macho man” schtick and the un-relatable hardened personality attached to it. To great surprise, The Power of the Dog recognizes and closely examines this in a unique way. From the start, Phil has a fiery hatred for the effeminate Peter, presumably because he views him as weak. He takes this out on the boy through immature bullying; name-calling and destruction of his artwork. This is only amplified when his brother, George, marries Peter’s mother, Rose. After Peter stumbles upon Phil’s shocking secret, we discover that his true hatred for Peter stems from jealousy of the latter’s ability to express his entire personality. Phil, on the other hand, has forced himself to hide behind a character.
Jane Campion’s distinct filmmaking prowess is on full display, bringing the most out of her actors’ performances. She manages to misdirect focus to the relationship between Rose and George, this makes the reveal of Phil’s true intentions all the more interesting. She deftly uses this method of juxtaposition throughout the entirety of the film. To name another example, Phil’s incessant whistling and the echo that goes along with it helps to sell not just his loneliness, but his suppression of it, considering the positive connotation of the gentle melody of a whistle. Campion similarly calls upon this tactic in the framing of her drop-dead gorgeous camerawork. When inside the ranch, the tight shots create a claustrophobic atmosphere, reflecting the family life that appeals to George, but not Phil. Comparatively, the sweeping, golden-filled shots of the New Zealand landscape (under the guise of ‘20s Montana) represent a freeing lifestyle bereft of the judgment of peers.
It is within this great strength that the most glaring flaw becomes apparent: the pacing. The first act is subtle in its plot development, giving almost no exposition, leaving you wondering if this is all Campion has to offer. But while first impressions usually last a lifetime, we all know that isn’t the case in the art of cinema. What once seemed like aimless scenes transform before your very eyes once an important piece of the puzzle is revealed. It’s hard to convey the level of depth in The Power of the Dog without giving too much away, but stick through its rocky start and the payoff is magical.
Campion reminds us of the flaws of toxic masculinity through a film in the genre famous for it. She pleads to us that vulnerability is something that’s okay to feel, and creates a beautiful modern period piece out of it. On a side note, the haunting final quote will stick with you for days after the credits roll.