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Listen Up...'The Power of the Dog' is a western revisionist masterpiece


Known as one of the oldest established film genres of American cinema, the Western has long held an inextricable symbiosis with the identity of the USA itself, upholding its standards of liberty, justice and the pursuit of true happiness. Carried by the lofty patriotic identities of male icons such as John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and Gary Cooper, the stereotypical strong, self-sufficient and overly confident American hero rejected the emotional vulnerability of modern masculinity in pursuit of the ‘idealistic’ role of the all-American traditional figure of power.

Such has been the western movie stereotype since the genre’s earliest days, with the rugged image of the modern man concreting itself within the zeitgeist of contemporary America during much of the 20th century. This identity is explored in Jane Campion’s contemporary western masterpiece The Power of the Dog where Benedict Cumberbatch’s furious protagonist, Phil Burbank, reflects such rugged traits without truly embodying the spirit behind them. 

Belittling those around him as a cruel, controlling dictator of his family’s ranch, Phil’s bravado drives a wedge between his co-worker and brother George (Jesse Plemons) along with his wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Embodying the brooding cowboy archetype, Phil is striving to become a hero of the old west in a land that no longer abides by such an identity. As Jane Campion explains in an interview, this American west is very different, “Nobody’s got a gun. It’s just on the end of that mythology when the cowhands are working there because they love cowboys of old and they are getting their clothes from the mail orders and dressing as cowboys as a kind of quoting of cowboys”. 

Just as Clint Eastwood achieved with his Best Picture-winning revisionist western Unforgiven in 1992, director Jane Campion subverts the western archetype by exploring the root of Phil’s inherent cruelty. Revealing raw vulnerabilities related to his own repressed sexuality, Cumberbatch’s character reveals himself to be a victim of his own hostility, with his behaviour overcompensating for his hidden, guilty desires. 

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Wistfully grieving the loss of his former lover and general idol ‘Bronco Henry’, Phil’s self-perception and physical desires lock horns upon the arrival of Peter, Rose’s effeminate son. Initially mocking him in front of his fellow ranch hands for his lack of ‘manly’ attributes, Phil later warms to the romantic potential between the two of them, craving the connection he has repressed for so long. 

It is this same relationship, and this same embrace of acceptance that eventually leads to Phil’s own death, with Peter using the fragility of the protagonist to kill him and end the years of emotional abuse he has caused on him and his mother. Subtly poisoning Phil, the once-lauded leader of the ranch is denied a heroic western death in a hail of bullets, as he is taken to the grave by someone he once considered incapable of audacity. 

The journey of Phil in Jane Campion’s modern classic evaluates and deconstructs this traditional image of the western cowboy as the bravado his own identity disintegrated every waking day of the new 20th century. Questioning the role of masculinity in the myth of the wild west, The Power of the Dog explains the toxicity of old values where an ethos of repression and cruelty can breed hatred and insecurity.

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