Jeff Arnold’s West

The blog of a Western fan, for other Western fans

The Power of the Dog (Netflix, 2021)


I wrote this review when the movie came out in December 2021 but it was not in the index, as I recall because I later thought I shouldn’t really review a film I didn’t see through to the end. I am posting it now because someone who saw the film (and was not terribly impressed) asked me about it. And what’s the good of Jeff Arnold’s West if you can’t look up a Western on it? (Don’t answer that). As you will gather from the article, I wasn’t too keen on it either…


Dismal failure



The phrase dismal failure is often used to mean just bad. But it can be applied more accurately to this film. It is dismal because the whole picture is bleak, cheerless and depressing, with no leavening of optimism, hope or humor. It is a failure because it tries to enter the ranks of the psychological Western, and flops badly in that aim. Psychological dramas require tension, and this movie has too little.



Writer/director Jane Campion sets her drama in Montana in the 1920s (but filmed it in New Zealand) and cast British actor Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead. I believe Mr Cumberbatch is a versatile, certainly a successful actor but as a tough Western cattle rancher he doesn’t come off. Modern actors are very good these days at accents but his slips often enough to tell he’s a posh Brit putting it on. I have nothing against non-American actors playing Western characters, not at all, but this one isn’t good enough.



There won’t be any spoilers in this review because I fell asleep before the end and so don’t know what happened. I did feel I ought to try again, maybe not watching just after dinner this time, but then I thought hell, why? I don’t want to sit through the whole 126 minutes all over again, especially if awake. A bad film is a bad film, and if I couldn’t last beyond the first hour and a half then it’s not worth a second viewing.


Ms Campion, Oscar winner for The Piano, clearly understands little of the modern Western, though it is hardly that, and has got the tone, pacing and dialogue all wrong. The picture is pretty-pretty here and there, and well shot by DP Ari Wegner but I can’t think of anything else positive to say.


Jane got a gun


Maybe the fault was with the original novel, by Thomas Savage. I wouldn’t know because I haven’t read it, nor am I encouraged to do so by the movie. Au contraire.


It’s about Phil Burbank, a macho man’s man cattleman (Cumberbatch) who is a bully, a slob and scathing and demeaning to those around him, especially his decent, stolid brother George (Jesse Plemons), whom he calls Fatso, and George’s stepson Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) , a young and probably gay man with artistic bent. Phil also clearly scorns George’s new wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst) who is a secret alcoholic.


George and Rose




It doesn’t take long to find out that Phil himself is a closet gay who hates himself for it and is deeply jealous of his brother and his married life, and seems equally repelled by and attracted to the young Peter.


That’s basically the plot. There may have been more but as I say I didn’t stay awake enough to find out.


In any case the part I did see was as boring and ineptly staged as anything I have watched recently.


Some of the reviews have been quite positive, I see, and that’s fine. Whatever floats your boat. But to me The Power of the Dog (I never discovered why it is called that) is dreary, lugubrious and morose, and has virtually no saving grace.



11 Responses

  1. On a more positive note … January 23, 2023 would have been Randy Scott’s 125th birthday. Happy birthday Randy! Thank you for many great westerns.

  2. A difficult film to warm to – at least at first. I almost gave up on it myself but, wanting to see what all the raves were about, I hung in there and I eventually found it to be interesting and, ultimately, kin of fascinating. The film’s title refers to Psalms 22. “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.” Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is reading the passage at the end of the movie. The “sword” and the “dog” refers to Phil (Cumberbatch) whose toxic behavior towards others likely stems from his burying his own true self deep within. Peter feels that his mother (Dunst) is in danger from Phil and takes matters into his own hands. Evidently Director Campion wanted to make a comment about “toxic masculinity,” particularly as related to the Western. I don’t really like that term. Toxic behavior I guess is something that should be resisted but adding “masculinity” to it is kind of sexist isn’t it? Anyway, while not to everyone’s taste, I found the film compelling if a bit overrated. It’s similar in a way to BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN without it being as explicit. Sorry for my long windedness Jeff. Sometimes I get carried away – especially with regard to movies.

    1. That explains the title. Thanks for that anyway.
      Certainly if we talked about toxic femininity we’d be in a whole world of trouble.
      BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN was another film I didn’t like at all.
      Long-winded? Nah.

  3. Most of your comments are pretty severe except Thomas’. I am not as sensitive as Jeff to B. Cumberbatch accent, my english and ears being not as excellent…, just a detail in my opinion . It is not because it is morose and lugubrious that it is a bad movie. Many funny or humorous films are bad, wether westerns or not… Ingmar Bergman films are rarely humorous, are they all bad !? Power of the dog is a kind of gothic slow burning intimate psychological thriller set in the US West using the ranch myths (family connections, cowhands relationship, harsh way of life, cattle and related props especially the lariat) closer to a scandinavian tragedy than to the American West epic. Jane Campion is surely closer to Ibsen than Howard Hawks or Raoul Walsh and her sense of suspense is not exactly hitchcockian (Rebecca is not especially funny either…) but her film is attractive enough in spite of or because of what is left unsaid or not shown (especially the more or less latent homosexuality. The novel’s author was gay, maybe this explains that…). The 4 major actors are very good too (Notwithstanding the accent…) and New Zealand make an acceptable Montana thanks to a talented photo operator.

  4. François Truffaut had developed the concept of “grand film malade” (great stick movie) to qualify some movies he liked but were twisted or even cursed for various reasons. You may apply it to many westerns, no doubt several Peckinpah should show up in the list along with Ciminos and this one as well.

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