‘The Power of the Dog’ Brings New Angles To The Western Genre (FILM REVIEW)

Rating- B

The last couple of decades have really forced a reconsideration of what the western is as a genre. As we creep further and further into the 21st century, so, too, has the genre progressed. Once firmly set in a world pre-Civil War, the modern western finds itself creeping into the 20th century, where cars and electricity sit side by side with horses and cowboys.

It’s a curious effect that, while making perfect sense, does speak to how we mythologize the past. Moreover, it speaks to what the western actually is. Gone are the days of intrepid cowboys and sheriffs; of wagon trains and raids. Once the genre of action and revenge, the modern western, with its values shifting into a new century, is contemplative and human.

This is surely the case for The Power of the Dog, the latest film by director Jane Campion (The Piano). Based on the 1968 novel of the same name by Thomas Savage, the film is a slow-paced, deliberate film that bears little in common with the western films of old. Eschewing the action and tropes that defined the genre in decades past, the story is one of human psychodrama and the push-pull of competing influences.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons star as brothers Phil and George Burbank, respectively. Having run a successful ranch for years, Phil has no time for anyone outside of his family and immediate sphere of influence. Instead, he uses his domineering personality to keep the world at bay as tp try, as best he can, to live the way he was taught. His world is threatened, however, when George meets and marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst). Distrusting his brother’s new wife, Phil engages in psychological torture in an effort to drive her and her son Pete (Kodi Smit-McPhee) away. As his abuse escalates, Pete must find a way to rescue his mother that also keeps her happy.

The Power of the Dog is a film that is deeply, starkly human. Campion, who also adapted the screenplay, is known for works that are powerfully contemplative and rich with emotion. You’ll find no change here. Filled with beautiful scenery and gorgeous shots, Campion has crafted a poetic tale of human connection and misery, deepening the sense of awe that the modern western film inspires.

Cumberbatch shines as Phil Burbank, bringing the same sort of detestable asshole energy she brought to Sherlock Holmes without any of Sherlock’s inherent likability. He’s an emotional brute, bullying and terrorizing his way to success without much thought for the consequences. The actor manages to encapsulate a certain brand of toxic masculinity in a way that’s almost fun to watch. Through him we see the innate terror Phil feels about his dying way of life. He’s a bully, yes, but Cumberbatch doesn’t shy from the internal helplessness that motivates his behavior.

Plemons and Dunst, while less memorable, complement Cumberbatch well, bringing Campion’s epic vision to life. While both characters could have used a bit more screentime to really nail home the abusive terror of Cumberbatch, they each bring their best to the roles. Dunst, especially, portrays the slow descent of Rose’s madness well, capturing the nuance of subtle abuse in ways that most movies ignore.

Though far from perfect, The Power of the Dog continues the intriguing trend of modernizing the western and bringing new angles to the genre. While some audiences might balk at the film’s slow and deliberate pace, Campion has managed to capture the raw, human intensity of Savage’s novel and bring it to a vivid and beautiful life. The Power of the Dog is now available on Netflix.

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