Reviews of The Power of the Dog (2021) and related work

The Power of the Dog (2021Moving picture, 126 minutes)

Seen in 2022.

Back in the 1940s, the mythology of the Wild West provided a sweet spot between white US self-congratulation and masculine melodrama that was cheap to write and cheap to shoot, so the genre dominated television in the 1950s. Even when audiences got tired of it, old producers continued to think of the Western as the genre of wholesome entertainment, and it became the template of Star Trek (1966) and Star Wars (1977) and so on. People got wiser in the 1970s and the Western genre was gradually relegated to hyper-aestheticized commentary upon filmmaking because it had been the genre. When people got wiser still, there were scattered efforts to include history, and especially historically marginalized groups of people, in the few Westerns that were still being made. Brokeback Mountain (2005) brought the humanization of male homosexuality to the genre, and it was great, but Westerns fell back into meta-filmmaking, like Django Unchained (2012).

In 2020, Jane Campion made another big-name white-male homosexual Western in The Power of the Dog. Like Brokeback Mountain, it’s primarily illusionistic and masterfully shot, but it’s a lot murkier, morally very grey. In that respect it’s diametrically opposed to most 1950s TV Westerns, and even most classic feature films in the genre. It’s a character study, but a pointless one. The love story, if there is one, has none of Jane Austen’s longing. Although it’s set on a Montana cattle ranch, it’s 1925 Montana onwards, and there’s hardly anything wild about it. In the gender presentation of Phil, the antagonist, the freedom of the Wild West is thematically connected to being literally mean and literally dirty, striving backwards, away from every form of civilization, toward oppression and self-hatred. It looks like an attempt to put the Western to death, but I’m afraid it’s too aimless a blow.

moving picture fiction

“Behind the Scenes with Jane Campion” (2022Moving picture, 17 minutes)

Seen in 2022.

moving picture document non-fiction