In the past decade, there's been a lot of discourse (and a concern) in the cinephile world about the death of the Western genre. This contributes to a lot of things, from studios over-exhausting both their ideas and their money into projects that ran out of coal, to the onset of social media feed pages that dramatically reduced everyone's attention spans. But every once in a while, there comes along a Western drama that takes its time to deliver the story, while trusting the audience with its slow-burn set up, only for it to knock you out with its brilliant last act.
The Power Of The Dog on Netflix tells the story of Burbank brothers- a charismatic and ruthless Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the quiet George (Jesse Plemmons), who are wealthy ranchers living together. Soon, George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widowed proprietress of a restaurant—after Phil shows cruelty towards her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Their marriage becomes a catalyst for Phil's character to showcase some hidden insecurities. Whereas George's character is grasping for the future, his brother is the one clinging onto the past. Phil has a sacred shrine, with cowboy accoutrements arranged like idols for his old mentor called Bronco Henry. The charismatic rancher he once idolised taught him the trade, but Phil's reverence for Bronco Henry goes way beyond that. Through a series of indirect methods in which Phil inflicts pain upon Rose, she gradually becomes disconcerting. Not used to such cruelty, Rose soon turns to booze. As she descends into depression and alcoholism, Phil then appears to take a strange fatherly interest in Peter. It's here where the film gives us echoes of what sort of double life Phil's been leading. There's the overtly masculine side of his, damaged by past trauma which becomes most prominent right within the first act of the film. But there's also a deeper vulnerable side to his character.
Adapted from Thomas Savage's novel, the film marks a return for writer-director Jane Campion after 12 years. Before the film takes you in completely through its ruminative tone, she makes sure that the backstory is filled in quickly and briefly with layered dialogue. Phil keeps calling his brother George a "fatso," demeaning him in front of everyone every opportunity he gets. But he also cares for him, implied through a scene at the beginning of the film where he waits for him at the ranch before heading to sleep. Gradually, we start learning why he keeps verbally assaulting everyone around him. Not through expository dialogue, but through the subtle shades his character carries. If Phil loses his brother, he would lose complete touch from the only sort of dominance and semblance of power he's had in his life. It's all brought to life by Benedict Cumberbatch's absolutely riveting performance; there's a size and range to his performance, the kind of physicality the role demands. He asserts his power by almost putting up a performance every time he's around someone. Cumberbatch perfectly inhabits the withering character on screen. The relationship between Phil and George is perfectly suggested and we're shown enough of what we're supposed to know. The Power Of The Dog is almost Freudian in its depiction of certain themes and the way it plays with shifting power dynamics. It's brilliant how as Phil's character keeps succumbing to his own insecurities while the film goes on, the visuals in itself start feeling even more menacing, through its Gothic presence.
Technically speaking, The Power Of The Dog is a flawless film. The aired countryside is beautifully rendered by cinematographer Ari Wegner (Lady Macbeth) into the screenplay; the visuals are always in harmony with the score and the story. The secluded setting gives the overall film a feeling of an enclosure, reinforcing how little these characters are in the broader setting. She pauses to linger on faces, giving them more depth than words ever could. The visual sensibility is pointed and sharp-edged; there's some great emphatic angles of closeups on two characters towards the end of the film which heightens the tension further through clever staging. The screenplay too, is always more interested in exploring the psyche of the characters on screen, rather than judging them through a singular lens. The string compositions by Jonny Greenwood makes this one of his best recent works, comparisons with There Will Be Blood are inevitable.
It all comes together through the precise way in which Campion weaves the themes of grief and complexity of masculinity. Here's a film that rather than generalising the term "toxic masculinity" and showing it in the most over-the-top way, thoughtfully examines what makes it often so difficult for men to identify that sensitive side of theirs. The film asks us that it's okay to give into or at least acknowledge your flaws, but it does so in the most Jane Campion way by turning your conventional narrative expectations upside down. The papery fronds that Peter uses at the beginning of the film, becomes a visual echo with the strips of rawhide from which he later makes a menacing rope. The shifting power dynamics are implied in how Peter holds onto a cigarette in the film's tense last act, rather than handing it over to Phil; now it's his time to assert dominance on Phil. Even when Phil gets sick the next morning and wakes up to see the doctor, we see him walking around the house without his boots on which he otherwise always wears, showing how his power is taken away from him by Peter. Through Peter's character, the film addresses Phil's problem with the onset of modernity and what always made him quick enough to step upon and crumble on whatever he sees as other people's weaknesses.
Using New Zealand for 1920s Montana, The Power Of The Dog builds upon its airy and melancholic quality to tell an everlasting tale of shifting power dynamics. It's a very quiet film that leaves its mood lingering long after the end credits have finished rolling. The film works as both a western and an anti-western- rather than going the more straightforward path, it asks the question- what does masculinity even mean? It's not just a textbook lesson on how to portray toxic masculinity in films, but also on how to tell stories; a reminder that modern films anyway need to take from old classic westerns. There's so much packed in the story that it wants you to acknowledge it all, as you keep coming back to the film to peel off those layers. Just the way Phil asks people around him to look closely and notice a certain something that he sees from a distance among the mountains, the film asks you to pay similar attention to its subtle character moments. It re-contextualised everything for me on repeated viewing, and that's a characteristic of any great drama.