The stoic cowboy is, perhaps, the most stalwart hero trope we’ve ever had in the movies. Detectives have always been hard-boiled, soldiers are often racked with guilt and trauma, cops frequently cross over to the wrong side of the law, but the cowboy protagonist has rarely been less than noble. Even revisionist Westerns like Unforgiven and The Assassination Of Jesse James depict the violent outlaws at their center as possessing a moral compass, living by a certain code of conduct that we view as noble and honest, under the circumstances. The cowboy hero may not be perfect, but there’s always a bad guy who’s much worse.
The Power Of The Dog is an inversion of the classic Western, turning the stoic, macho cowboy into a brute and allowing a skittish widow and her sensitive, “sissy” son to gently take the reins of this story. Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a rancher and a bully, sharing a business with his brother George (Jesse Plemons), who is as decent and mild-mannered as Phil is vicious and domineering. Phil’s cruelty end up endearing his brother to Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widow who lost her first husband to suicide and now operates a small restaurant and inn with her teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). George and Rose are soon married, and Phil sets to work tormenting his brother’s good-hearted but meek bride — because he’s jealous, because he’s fearful that this means losing the one true friend he’s got, and because he can.In another artist’s hands, The Power Of The Dog might be setting up a rivalry between Phil and George, with Rose and Peter as pawns caught between them. It would be a classic story of good versus evil, a Cain and Able fable set against a wide open Montana backdrop. But Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, masterfully adapted by Jane Campion, gradually reveals itself to be more interested in how Peter and Rose respond to Phil’s torment — how this man’s tyranny brings out hidden strengths or weaknesses in them. It also allows for flashes of insight as to what drives Phil’s crack-the-whip callousness — he’s a villain in Rose’s eyes, but could be a tragic hero through another lens, and it remains to be seen which vantage point Peter will gravitate to. Will Peter end up idolizing the charismatic cowboy, the way young boys in Westerns tend to do? And if so — will Pete survive such hero worship? As Phil gradually takes the awkward teenager under his wing, showing him the ropes around the ranch and the lay of the land, it’s unclear if the cowboy’s interest in the young medical student is on the up-and-up, or if it’s just another way to unravel Rose. As Phil sets to work fashioning a rope out of cow hide for his new protégé, dread looms over this narrative. We become certain that this story is building toward a fatal conclusion for one or more of these characters, and that this rope — a symbol that weaves together adulation and menace with equal weight — will somehow play a part in the proceedings.
The Power Of The Dog has emerged as an awards season frontrunner in a number of categories, with Benedict Cumberbatch a lock for a Best Actor nomination. The narrative around his Oscar campaign has already illuminated certain details about his character’s sexual repression, details that are probably more satisfying to discover as the story as unfolds. But it’s through this lens, and the way Campion gradually insinuates what has transpired in Phil’s past, that The Power Of The Dog takes on depth and dimension rarely seen in a Western. This setup could easily go the way of Brokeback Mountain, if it so chose, but Savage and Campion are less interested in how the “strong and silent” cowboy trope that made legends of Gary Cooper, John Wayne, and Clint Eastwood could be tragic for the men at the center of those tales, and more interested in how this deadly machismo can spell doom for the vulnerable people that ordinarily populate the margins of a hero’s tale. Nearly everyone must cower in Phil’s shadow in order to survive, because he’s the male, he’s the boss, he’s the cowboy — and he’s got the power.Jane Campion has emerged as the frontrunner in the Best Director race so far, and there’s good reason for it. The Power Of The Dog is expertly and exquisitely produced at every level, from the breath-taking cinematography (in which New Zealand doubles for Montana) to the impeccable production design to Jonny Greenwood’s nerve-racking score, which recalls his iconic work in There Will Be Blood (this film’s closest cinematic cousin in recent memory). Campion does romanticize the American West, as so many filmmakers before her have, but The Power Of The Dog dwells on details instead of the usual boundless grandeur of the Western, finding grace hidden in the margins rather than amidst the epic sweep. Once again, a piano plays a crucial role in the strained relationship between a well-meaning but clueless husband and his misunderstood wife (echoing Campion’s much lauded, multi-Oscar winning 1993 film The Piano). So does a pair of gloves — and, of course, that rope.
The Power Of The Dog is a story of absent fathers and father figures, of mentors and protégés, of brothers, of tacit lust and secret lovers, and that rope is used to tie all these threads together — a symbol of strength and friendship, of knowledge and tradition passed down from one cowboy to the next, but also an echo of past death and a harbinger of death yet to come.In addition to Cumberbatch’s towering and terrifying performance, sure to rack up its share of plaudits, Dunst stands to earn richly deserved kudos for her full-bodied performance as a troubled wife — she’s strong and weak, meek on the outside but, at times, quietly brave. I’ll wager that the lesser-known Kodi Smit-McPhee finds himself with an Oscar nod, too, for a role that builds on his work in the underseen Slow West, another unconventional Western shot in New Zealand by a non-American; it’s another story that goes in surprising directions, speaking to who is vulnerable in this lawless environment, and who is not. (It made my Top Ten list in 2015.)
Smit-McPhee’s Peter emerges as a new type of “strong and silent” Western hero, of sorts — one to be championed by those of us lacking in true grit, or whatever it is that made the cowboy such an enduring American legend, even all these years after he’s been made irrelevant by modernity and brasher, louder hero tropes. The Power Of The Dog is a sly inversion of Shane, a film about where strength truly lies, about the blindspots our butch white traditional heroes have. It is quiet and confident, kind-hearted by nature but deadly when provoked, and throughly lovely to behold, and it is most certainly one of the greatest films of the year.