Thursday, January 12, 2023

Brokeback Ranch

Film: The Power of the Dog
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on Fire!

I tried to watch The Power of the Dog a couple of months ago, and for whatever reason, I found myself wandering. I walked away from it for a bit until I felt I was more mentally prepared for it. And then I more or less forgot about until I realized that I had to finish up the Oscar movies from last year so that I could complete the Oscar Got It Wrong! posts over the next month. I want to be clear here in saying that my first failed attempt to watch this was on me and wasn’t the fault of the movie. I was just really tired.

There is going to be a natural inclination to make some comparisons between The Power of the Dog and Brokeback Mountain; I’m not immune to that myself, as suggested by the title of this review. First, this is a more modern Western both in the sense that it is a modern film and in the sense that this doesn’t take place in the Old West. For as much as this is at least in part a cowboy movie, this take place in 1925. Second, there is definitely a theme of homosexuality and homoeroticism that runs through this.

We are introduced initially to our main players. Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemmons) are on a cattle drive through Montana. One night, they encounter the widow Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) and her effeminate son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) at an inn/restaurant that Rose runs. This encounter is going to tell us all that we need to know about the Burbanks. George is genteel and much more suited to life in a city than on a range, and he is immediately drawn to Rose. Phil, coarse and unmannered despite his Yale education, belittles Peter and shames Rose. Much to his chagrin, George soon marries Rose. Phil is convinced that she is a gold digger.

Eventually, Peter goes off east to medical school while Phil undermines Rose in everything she does. She turns to alcohol, and by the time Peter returns from college for a time, she has slipped into alcoholism. And it is here that we learn some important information about both Phil and Peter.

Peter, we learn, is much colder than he appears on the surface. While home, he traps a rabbit that Rose is convinced he will make into a pet, but he instead kills it and dissects it. Phil, on the other hand, for all of his bluster and attempts to shame Peter, keeps a stack of homoerotic magazines hidden, which Peter eventually finds. And, while he continues to work to undermine Rose and believe that she is only there for the money, Phil begins to create a relationship with Peter. I won’t spoil who that turns out or Peter’s actions, since these are, essentially, the main point of the film.

The Power of the Dog is a hard film not to be impressed with on some level. It does move slowly, though, which is going to turn off some people. The pace works though, because this is a slow burn movie. We need to see the development of the relationship between Peter and Phil. We need to see the slow dissolution of Rose as Phil works on her to break her down and undermine her confidence.

The pace also works in large part because of the gorgeous scenery. This is a film that is beautiful to look at, and much of the strength of the film comes from the scenery. It’s easy to forget that this takes place in 1925, because aside from a few moments of seeing a car on screen, this could just as easily be taking place fifty years earlier. There is a feel that the Montana of The Power of the Dog is one that is untouched by modernity in any respect.

It is perhaps most noteworthy that all four members of the main cast were Oscar-nominated for their performances, Cumberbatch for Best Actor, Dunst for Best Supporting Actress, and both Smit-McPhee and Plemmons for Best Supporting Actor. The hardest of these to see is Jesse Plemmons, not because it is a poor performance, but because aside from the opening of the film, he is not present in a great deal of it. The role seems to small to merit the nomination. Smit-McPhee, on the other hand, probably could have been nominated Best Actor, and would have deserved that nomination. Cumberbatch, for his part, is good in the role, and would be difficult to replace. It’s Kirsten Dunst, though, who I find the most notable. She’s been a bit of a punchline for some of her roles in the past, and this demonstrates that she has a lot more talent than many give her credit for having.

This is a good movie, and quite possibly a great one. A great deal of why this works comes from the slow reveal of what the title of the movie actually means. It works on several levels, and so if you miss one, you’ll get a different meaning from another.

My biggest issue here is that this might not be that rewatchable. For me, Oscar films are always going to live and die on their rewatchability. This feels like a one-and-done film, albeit one that I am more than happy to have finally watched.

Why to watch The Power of the Dog: When you realize why it is called what it is, everything falls into place.
Why not to watch: It takes too long to develop for some people.


  1. I really liked this film as I need to get it on Criterion Blu-Ray as I just love the sense of psychology between both Peter and Phil. Especially with the latter taking the former under his wing in its second half and making Kirsten Dunst's character uncomfortable as she does push his buttons.

    1. I really like what Kirsten Dunst did with this role. It's good to be reminded sometimes that someone we think of as taking only flighty roles and fluff has some real depth.

      I like this cast a lot in general, but she's the one who sold the movie the hardest for me.

  2. I loved this movie. I wish it had won Best Picture. Poor Bronco Henry is still a big joke in my house. "Oh, you didn't empty the dishwasher? You know who would never forget? BRONCO HENRY!"

    1. You know who would have done a better job of talking about him in this review? Bronco Henry.

      There is limitless possibility for that as a punchline.