The Power of the Dog was made during lockdown and released into cinemas internationally in November-December 2021, followed quickly by streaming on Netflix. I knew it was going to be some time before I would see it and I waited for the Blu-ray release which turned out to be by Criterion. I tried not to learn too much about the film before I watched it. This week, I watched the first half of the film, enjoying the visual and aural splendour and intrigued but not totally captured by the narrative. At that point I stopped and looked at one of the extras on the Blu-ray. E. Annie Proulx gives a short ‘to camera’ explanation of the story behind the original novel written by Thomas Savage in 1967, placing it in the context of the literary genre of ‘Western’ writing. Immediately everything made more sense to me and I enjoyed the second half of the film with a much clearer idea of what my ‘reading’ was likely to produce.

Thomas Savage was born in Salt Lake City in 1915 and would have been a young gay man in college in the mid 1930s. The film is set in 1925. The character based on himself is that of Peter Gordon, a young man whose widowed mother Rose runs an eating and rooming house. Here Peter and Rose will become acquainted with the two Burbank brothers, Phil and George and their ranch hands who come for a meal. Jane Campion, who adapted the film herself as well as producing and directing, chose not to use much of the opening section of the novel, so we meet Rose and Peter without too much back story. George is attracted to Rose and they soon marry with Rose and Peter moving into the Victorian Gothic mansion that serves as the ranch house for the Burbank brothers. Savage was a young gay man at a time when he must remain closeted and he married and had children. His closeted identity was presented in his fiction including The Power of the Dog.

There is relatively little coverage of ranching in the film, apart from incidents which are concerned with the relationships between the four central characters

At this point its worth thinking about how to categorise this film. As Proulx herself recognises, the original story shares several elements with her short story that was adapted for Brokeback Mountain (US 2005). That story was an example of a ‘Twilight Western’, a term which covers many Westerns produced in recent times and could be used in relation to The Power of the Dog. An alternative categorisation might be a ‘contemporary Western’. A film set in 1925 can’t be a classic Western. There must be a cut-off somewhere and I think Westerns set at any point from the 1910s onwards are probably ‘contemporary’ since Western films had already been established as a genre by that date. However, most critics have categorised this film as a ‘Western drama’ or even a ‘Western psychodrama’. This seems to me to play down the power of the landscape and the traditions and myths of the cowboy life. I’m sticking with the Western, but thinking about it as both ‘Queer’ and ‘Twilight’.

Phil and George, the unlikely pair of brothers

There is a detailed post on this blog dealing with the concept of the Twilight Western’ so I’ll just sketch the main elements that are relevant here. The twilight of the West means the end or the diminishing status of the main features of the cowboy life. The ‘freedom’ of the range is being replaced by barbed wire, the itinerant work of the trail-hand is disappearing along with the cattle drive. The Twilight narrative usually features two male characters faced with this crisis of cowboy culture. One wishes to maintain that culture at all costs, the other is willing to ‘give in’ and to ‘modernise’. That’s Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) in this case. The roles for women will also change – and their expected behaviour. When such a narrative is ‘queered’ by homoerotic desire the outcome will generally be a powerful form of melodrama.

Can you spot the dog (with the open jaw formed by the shadows) on the slopes of the peak?

In Jane Campion’s film, the ‘excess’ of melodrama is displayed in the stunning cinematography of Ari Wegner and the music score by Jonny Greenwood – as well as the use of diegetic music at certain points. The film was shot on location in the Southern Alps of Otago, South Island, New Zealand and post-produced in Australia as well as New Zealand. This follows Slow West (New Zealand-UK 2014) the earlier Western made by John Maclean which also featured the Australian-born Kodi Smit-McPhee. He plays Peter in The Power of the Dog. I wasn’t totally convinced by the landscapes of Slow West i.e. I didn’t feel I was in the Western United States. I was less bothered this time, possibly because the narrative is rooted in one place. There are only a couple of occasions when we venture further afield and I recognised Dunedin Station standing in for a station in Montana and the Otago heritage town of Oamaru standing in for the (fictitious?) Montana town of Herndon.

The structure of the film means that the first half or more sets the scene, slowly building up the picture of Phil as the conflicted and repressed, brilliant but socially crippled brother who went to an Ivy League school but has since burrowed deep into the body of that mythological creature, the cowboy poet/philosopher. Crucially though, instead of the romantic figure of the cowboy, Phil focuses on the realism of a stockman’s life with his dirty chaps and greasy hair. Such characters can be noble human beings but Phil has every prejudice imaginable and bullies and insults the other three characters. Fortunately, Peter is much stronger than he first appears to be. In the second half of the narrative, partly propelled by a desire to protect his mother, Peter gradually begins to reveal his strength. I won’t spoil where the narrative goes. You may wonder what the title refers to. It’s a line from Psalm 22.

The relationship between Phil and Peter develops strongly in the second half of the film.

For Campion’s plan to work her four principal actors have to deliver and they do. Benedict Cumberbatch has perhaps the most demanding role in terms of the skills he has to master on the ranch, but in some ways he is repaid for learning those skills with the biggest and most expansive part. By contrast Jesse Plemons as George has less to do on the skills front but a much more difficult characterisation to present, seemingly passive but potentially strong. I hadn’t realised that Plemons and Kirsten Dunst are actually married. Dunst also has a difficult role, or perhaps a role that many actresses might not want to play. Unusually in a Jane Campion film, the central roles are dominated by the men. In that context she does very well to hold her own.

It’s all very difficult for Rose, here pressurised to prepare to play the piano for guests. Kirsten Dunst gives her all.

I’m looking forward to exploring this film text in the context of a wider study of the contemporary/twilight Western. It’s perhaps not surprising that The Power of the Dog evokes memories of other Westerns, both in terms of its look and the individual narratives of its principal characters. The great Victorian mansion (partially real, part CGI) reminds me of the house in Days of Heaven (US 1978) and the appearance of Keith Carradine (the only recognisable ‘Western’ actor in the film) as the Governor of Montana coupled with Phil’s education back East is a reminder of Heaven’s Gate (US 1980). E. Annie Proulx’s commentary not only reminds us of Brokeback Mountain but also opens up the links to Larry McMurtry’s prodigious output of Western novels. Proulx sees McMurtry as changing the whole approach of Western literature. His novel Horseman Pass By (1961) became the film Hud (US 1963), set on a ranch in Texas in the 1950s. Although a very different story, Hud shares some key elements with The Power of the Dog. Savage’s novel was published in 1967. I wonder if the critics then made the McMurtry connection? But I think I will go next to Comes a Horseman (US 1978) set in ranching country in the 1940s. I note too that that Taylor Sheridan has become McMurtry’s successor in writing extensively since 2016 for both film and TV serials. Unfortunately most of the TV material seems available only via Paramount’s streamer.

I’ve probably discussed The Power of the Dog from a different perspective than most reviewers so I should just note that Jane Campion, just as she did with In the Cut (UK-Australia-France-US 2003), has taken an American novel and produced something challenging in terms of an American genre. The Power of the Dog is a challenge whether you are a fan of Westerns or just searching for a celebrated Oscar winner. But give it real consideration. It’s a magnificent example of great filmmaking.