The film The Power of the Dog is based on a book and it’s a late western film. I love westerns and I love films based on books. So I watched this film with pretty high expectations, but also doubtful it would be good. I am a reluctant admirer of Benedict Cumberbatch, because sometimes he is just too good. And he really did get stuck in his character for this film. It made it a hard film to watch, but really worth it too. There may be slight spoilers here.
For some people a good film (or book) has to have characters they really like. The Power of the Dog has some nasty people in it. You may find some way to sympathise with some of them, but everyone’s flaws are out there. Almost like real people. The film is set in 1925, in the last remnant of the American ‘wild west’, which got less wild a few decades before. There are cowboys, cattle to be moved, money to be made and everyone is really just trying to survive. There is little room to be nice and civilised, but that room is getting bigger as modern day conventions creep in. But it is also still an economically stressful time. If you only want to see nice people doing nice and fun things, this is a film that will make you work hard.
So who do we have in this story? There is the rough but charismatic rancher Phil Burbank, who rounds up cattle, kills things, rarely bathes and who has a strained relationship with his softer brother, George. And George just brought home a new wife, a widow with a son from her previous marriage. Phil isn’t very nice to his new sister-in-law and sees her as a gold digger. Her son Peter is way too soft and intellectual, he thinks. He’d need some toughening up. And somehow Phil takes on that task, even though you’d never know he actually likes the young man. You’d almost feel sorry for the young man, if you didn’t alreay know that Peter is not your typical soft, nerdy, weak victim. At this point I really did not know who to fear for more…
The Power of the Dog is worth the slow pace
Aside from characters you probably won’t like, the story telling is set at a slow pace. Part of that is because the landscape is almost like a character and gets a lot of attention: beautiful shots of dry roads, mountains, emptiness. It’s these beautiful images that slow down the pace of the film. As a viewer I had to work at keeping my attention and work out what each scene added to the story. Unlike some other films, there was not a lot of full on exposition, where a character explains exactly what was going on in their minds, or what happened in detail in their past. Phil gives you lovely hints and half-anecdotes, that you can piece together into a possible backstory for him. How was he formed into the rugged, hard man? And why does he not bathe, but he’s sensitive enough to enjoy playing a musical instrument really well?
And it’s the same with Peter, really. You’d assume at first he is that kind of stereotypical mama’s boy: lost his father and clings to his mother’s skirts, unable to face the real world. But it’s not that black and white. He does adore his mother and wants only the best for her, because he loves her and is loved by her. But you see who he is, really, with each scene and each interaction with either Phil or his mother. And his actions when he is by himself clearly show how his mind works. It’s hard work, more than other films, but it is so rewarding as the full picture of what is happening is revealed.
No actual dog in the film
I’d just like to point out that there is no actual dog in the film. The title is explained at the end of the film, though. It gives you the last clues you might need to understand all that happened. But if you were hoping for a cute puppy, or a rough mutt roaming around with the cowboys, no.
If you enjoy puzzles, can get through a film with unpleasant people and are willing to be an active participant, you should try The Power of the Dog. The actors are great, the landscape is beautiful and the story is actually complete at the end. Or as complete as it ever gets. I enjoyed watching it. I recommend picking a nice evening, maybe have a companion to watch it with, forget that it is a western film and just let it wash over you. Don’t forget the popcorn or whatever you enjoy during a film.