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“The Power of the Dog,” the presumptive favorite to win Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards is conditionally a Western. Thus, it’s also arguably the most “rural” film among the latest contenders competing for Hollywood’s top honor, by a good margin (Arrakis be damned).
It stands out in this regard, given that America’s two largest metropolitan areas, New York and Los Angeles, serve as the setting for a pair of Best Picture candidates each — accounting for a full 40 percent of the field. Still, regardless of this context, how effective is “The Power of the Dog,” as a Western and a rural film? With the Academy Awards ceremony just a few weeks away, now seems as good a time as any to take a closer look.
Our story begins in 1925 on a cattle ranch in Montana, surrounded by expansive valleys and rolling mountains. At the outset we witness the workings of the ranch, with tasks both straightforwardly simple and wildly impressive captured on screen. Among a bevy of men in cowboy hats, boots, and spurs, we are also introduced to the ranch’s two proprietors, brothers Phil and George Burbank. Our primary protagonist is undoubtedly Phil, and it doesn’t take long to pick up on his nostalgic longing for a bygone time, as well as his requisite antagonism toward some of the expectations of modernity.
These basic building blocks are fundamentally Western. In particular, the archetype of the free-spirited cowboy as an anachronism in an advancing world is exceedingly familiar. Fortunately, “The Power of the Dog” seems more interested in examining and complicating these archetypes than playing into them. The setup is Western, but the structure and style that follow share more in common with a tense family drama or a psychological thriller than most cowboy films you’ve probably seen.
There are no sheriffs or federal bureaucrats to contend with here, no land disputes or shootouts. The film’s concerns, and its conflicts, start and end entirely within the borders of the Burbank ranch and the familial relationships that exist there. More specifically, all the action here is carried out by four principal characters, the aforementioned Burbank brothers, Phil and George, plus George’s new wife and stepson, Rose and Peter Gordon.
This type of story could be told in any era or genre but using the open range as a backdrop for intense, introspective character exploration makes for a compelling contrast.
The camera work alternates between sweeping shots of vast natural wonders and tight close-ups of characters’ features within dark interior spaces. On its own the former would communicate feelings of vast possibility and freedom, while the latter brings forward a sense of isolation and claustrophobia.
In an early scene melding these dueling approaches, an emotional George tells his newly wedded wife Rose, “I just wanted to say how nice it is … not to be alone.” This character moment has extra impact precisely because it’s paired with some of the film’s most impressive aerial photography, the big sky and panoramic mountains rendering George and Rose tiny, solitary figures.
“The Power of the Dog” is often gorgeous to look at. However, make no mistake, in its pacing, performances, and its musical score, it is, by design, not very pleasant. Like many award-season movies, it is more solemn and severe than it is fun or fancy-free.
At any given time, these characters are likely suffering, or, whether they recognize it or not, making one another suffer — the former a natural product of the latter. Here again, the genre conventions and rural backdrop amplify the meaning.
It’s striking that such bountiful, beautiful spaces — again, correlated with openness and opportunity — could be filled with such repression and misery. Yet, those who exist in rural spaces and work on rural issues know better than most, here in the real world our most scenic natural spaces are not immune to all manner of strife.
Likewise, the myth of the American West rests upon the notion of hard men and harder living, and this offers fertile ground for the film to explore how toxic masculinity, resentment, and a total aversion to vulnerability and honest communication can poison our relationships and sense of self.
Loathsome as they may be, these are nonetheless rich characters and interesting relationships, and the performances are up to the task. The dynamic between Phil and Peter, played by actors Benedict Cumberbatch and Kodi Smit-McPhee respectively, is the real centerpiece of the film and where additional acclaim and awards attention ought to be focused.
The plotting of the film, meanwhile, can feel sparse and slow, but it’s the kind of story that reveals its true purpose over time. Once the full tale has unfolded, previous scenes take on deeper meaning; details that seemed inconsequential at first start fitting together like pieces to a puzzle while other symbols and questions remain to linger in the mind.
As a final note, it’s worthwhile to consider the rural “cred,” if you will, of this work. The actor Sam Elliott, himself a living embodiment of cowboy iconography, recently took issue with the film in a podcast interview. Among other things, he questioned why Jane Campion, a woman from New Zealand, was qualified to write and direct a story about American cowboys.
“The Power of the Dog” was indeed shot Down Under, New Zealand serving as a facsimile of rural Montana for the film’s purposes. Furthermore, its leading performances come from an Englishman, Cumberbatch, and an Australian, Smit-McPhee. However, for those unfamiliar, the film is an adaptation of a novel of the same name, written by American author Thomas Savage.
Savage published many books set in the American West, and “The Power of the Dog” was directly inspired by his own upbringing on a cattle ranch in Beaverhead County, Montana. At root, it’s his story and his lived experience that ultimately animate this work.
Whatever your litmus test for rural storytelling, I enjoyed seeing Savage’s text brought to life in this fashion. Had a team of Sam Elliott types, seasoned experts of the American Western genre, taken on this work it likely would have made for a very different kind of adaptation, and plausibly not for the better. As noted previously, it is the contrasts and the conflicts that propel this movie, each character grappling with some sense of alienation.
Campion’s interpretation of the story and Cumberbatch’s take on its lead are equipped to grapple with these dynamics head on. As far as Westerns go, “The Power of the Dog” is understated and unconventional, but it deserves credit for how it gives this story a second life and invites today’s filmgoing audience to consider its age-old themes anew.
The Power of the Dog is streaming on Netflix and is also showing in select movie theaters.
This article first appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Elegy, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder focused on the best, and worst, in rural media, entertainment, and culture. Every other Thursday, it features reviews, recommendations, retrospectives, and more. Join the mailing list today to have future editions delivered straight to your inbox.