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.



6 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.

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