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The Power of the Dog

March 26, 2022

The Power of the Dog (2021)
Director: Jane Campion
Actors: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirsten Dunst

Can someone explain to Sam Elliott what The Power of the Dog is about – and what movies are? | Movies | The Guardian

Synopsis: Widow, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), marries into a cowboy family, but her effeminate son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), is mocked by Rose’s new brother-in-law, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch). Phil’s stance on Peter eventually softens, and he even takes him under his wing when Peter is on a break from his medical studies.

Review: This revisionist western – very much an explicit allegory on masculinity and male sexual politics – reminded me a touch of Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent Phantom Thread, with its tale of a preening bully getting his ultimate comeuppance. Much like with that film, though I found the politicking slightly tiresome and didactic, there is still much to admire in its craftsmanship and the little fringes of its story.

It is a suitably painterly work for arguably the most pictorial of American film genres, with Jane Campion conveying the vastness, loneliness and primitiveness of the West so evocatively. With the narrative set compellingly in 1925 – a time when the old western life was becoming ever more marginalised by modernity and the prevalence of the motor car challenging the domination of the horse – Campion gains great mileage out of this dialectic with numerous overhead shots of new highways imprinting themselves on the vast Montana landscape.

The power struggle at the centre of this narrative – Benedict Cumberbatch’s seemingly traditionalist cowboy, Phil, and Kodi Smit-McPhee’s effeminate and academic teen, Peter – mirrors the macro-thematics of the film. Peter is essentially a conceptual construct – an anachronistic gesture embodying contemporary liberal society reaching back in time to undermine the western romantic mythologisation of masculinity by ascribing it (at least in Phil’s case) as having roots in some form of repressed queerness. It’s a playful thesis if nothing else, but its rhetorical obviousness does drain the film of some subtlety in its second half (especially the Bronco Henry subplot), and undersells what had initially been an intriguingly set-up narrative canvas. (March 2022)

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