Wind blows across barren wasteland. A hawk cries in the distance.
Enter the cowboy in heavy boots and clangorous spurs. Now it can only be a matter of minutes until the first gunshot rings and, soon after, the saloon lies in ruins.
Or so I thought. It’s fifteen, twenty, thirty minutes into The Power of the Dog, plenty of cowboys have entered and left the scene, and I still wonder when the first one draws his gun. I will wonder for quite some more time. The Power of the Dog is a Western and so I wait for the raw violence and brutality, comical in its overstatement, that is the Western genre’s staple bread and butter. But in The Power of the Dog, the gunfight I am waiting for won’t happen, no saloon mirror will shatter. The film, set in exemplary wild west scenery and costume, is violent and brutal, but on a deeper and darker level that I do not fully grasp until it is over.
This review will give away as little as possible of the plot. It will help understanding, maybe even enjoying the film to read up a bit on its background and focus. But be warned that the intriguing confusion in which it left me is impossible not to spoil. So if that’s your thing, go watch the film first and return to this and any other review afterwards.
The Power of the Dog is a 2021 adaptation of Thomas Savage’s novel from 1967. It is set at the turn of the century in rural Montana, on a wealthy cattle farm owned by George and Phil Burbank (played by Jesse Piemons and Benedict Cumberbatch). The two brothers couldn’t be less alike. Red-faced and well-nourished George cares about hygiene, wears fine garments, and works to secure the family’s place in the high society of Montana. Phil, on the other hand, gives the rough and tough cowboy who prefers a freezing pond over the ranch house bathtub and leads most of the ranch work by his own example. But Phil’s treatment of the people around him is relentless and cruel. He humiliates others mercilessly for any apparent weakness or imaginary flaw. Phil in particular subjects George’s wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to his terror. Rose is slowly driven into alcoholism, but Peter’s relationship with Phil remains ambivalent. Ultimately, though, Phil’s treatment of Rose and Peter seals his own fate.
The film only slowly, and never fully, reveals Phil’s inner life. Throughout it becomes clear that his toxic and cruel behaviour is a facade overcompensating for what lies behind it. Phil is deeply torn between an intelligent and sensitive self and the toxic, hyper-masculine mask that he puts on in the company of others. He is witty, educated, a good craftsman, and even talented banjo-player, but at Phil’s hands all these gifts turn into instruments to torment others. The details of Phil’s past and of the pressures under which his more humane side succumbed are left to speculation by the viewer. Only his late mentor Bronco Henry is repeatedly brought up, but rather as an idolised memory rather than a character whose real influence on Phil is revealed.
The Power of the Dog is a film about toxic masculinity and its consequences. Screenwriter and director Jane Campion must be applauded for developing an unusual and compelling approach to the topic which sticks out from today’s overheated debates. Her film does not take a judgmental, but a thorough psychological perspective and takes time to explore the various facets of the damage that toxic masculinity does to others, but even more to the person behind the toxic facade. The social conditions that lead to toxic gender roles are only addressed implicitly and would certainly be quite different in 1900 Montana than in a modern urban society. Hence, The Power of the Dog should less be viewed as an allegory on contemporary societal challenges in historical costume than as a reminder that behind every frowning face there is a person with a beating heart and a dreaming mind. All too quickly we jump to familiar territory of good and bad, guilt and blame. The Power of the Dog offers diverging interpretations and an unresolved moral dilemma that challenge us to a reconsideration of these categories.
The conflicting and torn personae of the Power of the Dog are held together by a brilliant performance by the cast. Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Kodi Smit-McPhee create characters in which the good, the bad, and the inevitable are inseparably intertwined. The film shares its attention almost equally between each of them as well as the plains and rolling hills of “Montana” (the film set was actually in New Zealand). The lack of a single main character is confusing to the unprepared viewer, but it forgoes to give oversimplified answers to complex social questions. The Power of the Dog remains true to its premise that it is the relationships between characters and not individual virtues and vices that are at stake.
The storytelling Jane Campion is equally subtle and, at first, baffling. Fateful turning points appear as utter details and are easy to miss until their consequences come together. While this may leave many viewers confused (I certainly was), it is a powerful way to tell of the modes of psychological violence and subordination which go unnoticed until it is too late. This violence can unfold in the relations between two individuals, but also exists as a social phenomenon. It is as capable as a gunshot to break a person, but lacks all the comic exaggeration of the typical Western. The Power of the Dog shows that psychological violence, unlike most cinematic revolver duels, knows no winners.