Believe it or not, I am not one for Westerns as a genre. A big reason probably has to do with me not being a fan of a lot of John Wayne movies, and most of his were either Westerns or War movies, the latter being another genre that I never really had an interest in. And while my exceptions for war films include Imitation Game, I never really had that one exception for western, aside from Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, which I feel is just as much of a horse movie as it is a western.
Then along came a video that popped up on one of my socials talking about a scene, specifically one of the last scenes, in the Netflix adaptation of The Power of the Dog with the least amount of spoilers possible. It got me a bit curious, and when I asked about it, thankfully, they kept it spoiler free and recommended I check the movie out. So, after about two weeks of getting motivated to, and getting the book it was based on, I finally sat down and watched it. I recently finished reading the book, which I may review in the future, but today, I thought I would discuss my thoughts on the movie.
With that in mind…
I’ll try to keep spoilers to a minimum, but it goes without saying that spoilers are bound to occur.
The story itself is certainly a curious one. It takes place in 1920’s Montana, two brothers work on a ranch, Phil, a crass and somewhat feared cowboy who deep down has a more complex and surprising nature, and George, the kinder and more soft spoken of the two. George marries Rose Gordon, a widow, who’s husband died by his own hand. Rose is tormented by Phil throughout the story, who doesn’t seem too fond of her or her son. Peter, Rose’s son, is a young man studying to become a surgeon. He is protective of his mother, feeling it is his duty to keep her safe after the death of his father. To others, he appears gentle, fragile, and feminine (by 1920’s standards), however, like Peter, he is not all that he appears to be, having an inner strength, confidence, and intellect that no one would expect.
The story focuses on these four characters, the ranch, a hill that, depending on ones point of view, looks like just hills or a barking dog, and what one sees vs what is really there.
The story might not be for everyone, though it does have good qualities. While some people may find it as slow, simple, and/or straightforward, others might see it as intriguing, I’d argue the characters, and how they are characterized are something worthwhile. It doesn’t need a lot of action to get it’s point across. The slow burn type movie that really utilizes this technique really well.
As someone who doesn’t normally watch westerns, this was one that caught my attention because of the story it was telling. Yes, at times it feels straightforward and slow, but given the small details throughout the film as well as the characters, there is a story about appearances not always being met. Secrets that wouldn’t be expected based on perceptions at the time and how seemingly unimposing people can hide inner strength and manipulation.
Nuance is something that has significance in this movie. Details that have more meaning than one might think. For instance, what Peter does with the rabbits he finds in the movie. Body language, like how Peter caries himself when walking passed Phil and his men to check on some birds. He ignores the less than friendly reactions, holding himself with a sense of unfazed confidence.
Quiet moments, like the scene in the barn during the climax, says something despite very little being said. Dialogue has importance as well. Like when Phil and Peter are talking about Peter’s father. How he died, how Peter feels it is his duty to protect his mother, and how Peter’s father told him to be kinder. That he was “too strong”. And while Phil would scoff at the notion, it does foreshadow what’s to come.
Things like this is what I enjoyed in the movie. While I may not always need a movie that makes the viewer think, when done well and in a
What really makes this movie stands out is the casting. Even if viewers don’t like how the story is presented, the characters are something worth enjoying. The main four characters are casted and acted perfectly. Kirsten Dunst plays the role of Rose Gordon, a widower who was living with her own demons (Phil, grief, and growing alcoholism) really well. Jesse Plemons really played off of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Phil as George Burbank. And I think the background characters were pretty well too.
However, if there were two performances I was really drawn to, it was Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank and Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter Gordon. Not only because of some of the underlining subtext between the characters, but because of how the actors portrayed them. Both characters can be seen as different sides to the same coin, and viewers can get that feel from the actors.
While the story focuses on the main four characters, these two have a lot of focus, and the dynamic is really intricate and interesting. Phil appears masculine and intimidating, deep down, there’s actually an intelligent and a softer side to him. Peter, meanwhile, appears introverted and feminine (by 1920’s standards), yet, he has an inner strength and is more cunning than he seems.
Benedict Cumberbatch pulls off the abrasiveness of Phil’s character really well. Watching a bit of the behind the scenes, it’s noted how Jane Campion really wanted him to embrace the character, which he did well.
While one could argue that he feels out of place, I’d argue that he plays a range of character types. So things like westerns and portraying a character who is more crass or confrontational weren’t impossible. Because while Benedict Cumberbatch is known for intellectual roles like Sherlock Holmes and Alan Turing, as well as Dr. Strange, he’s also done other types of roles.
For instance, he’s portrayed menacing and sly persona as Smaug and Khan. He’s played more comical characters like Rory in Fortysomething. Roles in animated features like the Penguins of Madagascar and The Grinch. As well as several stage performances. So Benedict Cumberbatch was bound to break onto the western scene eventually.
Then there’s Kodi Smit-McPhee. What I really enjoyed with his performance is how he portrays Peter. Peter throughout the movie, is seen as someone who isn’t all that imposing or strong, which he is belittled for. Especially by Phil.
It isn’t until later in the film that viewers get to see that Peter has an inner strength and the mind of someone who can do things that most wouldn’t expect. That this seemingly weak character has a deeper strength and cleverness to him alongside his intellect and kind heartedness.
Considering the character being described as particularly introverted, slim, sickly around the time of his birth as the book mentions, and not appearing particularly masculine/macho, I feel like Kodi Smit-McPhee also brings a physical accuracy to the role. Considering how the character is described in the book, I feel that Kodi was able to pull off the physical ingenuous impression that was required for the role. And as far as the characterization of someone who’s introverted, appearing emotionally detected, and unthreatening, yet intellectually crafty and caring, I don’t think I could picture someone else in the role. It goes without saying that, much like Benedict Cumberbatch, Kodi is not a type cast actor while still pulling off a role like this really well.
Overall, the movie has a great cast of characters and actors. Each bring their own personal touch to their roles and have great performances. Whether viewers like Phil Burbank, Peter Gordon, or any of the others will depend on their preference, but each character has their own story.
1920’s and The Company of Men: Phil, Peter, and Bronco Henry
This is the one thing that can draw in a number of discussions. Especially in regards to Phil and Peter. I may do a post breaking down my thoughts on it as well as a post discussing Peter Gordon specifically. That said, I did want to touch on this considering it does have a significant point.
It starts with Phil and his stated admiration for Bronco Henry, a man who taught Phil everything he needed to know to get where he’s at (riding, rope tying, etc.). With how much he talks about Bronco, it’s easy to see how much Phil respected the man. Yet, it isn’t until later that viewers would get to see the true depth of said admiration.
As the movie goes on, viewers come to realize that Phil, with all his admiration towards and fond memories of Bronco Henry, that he was a closeted gay man. Given the time period this takes place in, Phil’s relationship with Bronco Henry would be scrutinized more than it would be today. So keeping up the façade of not being gay most likely contributed to why he comes off as hostilely as he does (or toxic masculinity as it has also been described). Or at least partially. And in keeping up with this façade, that could help explain why he was so demeaning towards Peter at first. While that might not excuse all of his actions, forcing that part of himself to stay secret, probably didn’t help.
As for Peter, while his motives would become more apparent and dealt with the vitriol alongside his mother, he left an impression on Phil. It isn’t until Peter finds Phil in the woods that things seem to take a shift. Phil seems to want to start over with Peter, claiming they “got off on the wrong foot.” While this could also be seen as a way to bother Rose, things tend to shift a bit the longer the two are together.
Phil does mention Bronco Henry, at one point even stating that Peter was a late rider much like Bronco Henry was. And when Phil finds out about his father, he seems sympathetic, only really disbelieving his father’s statement on him being ‘too strong’. While the book may go more in depth about the death of Peter’s father, the sympathy was apparent in both.
However, I think if there’s one scene that really shows off how both characters shifted, it was in the climax when Phil finds out that Rose sold the hides he was going to burn. Both the book and the movie have details that make this scene impactful. From body language to dialogue to the details described in the book, the moment Peter offers to give Phil the raw hide he found, how Phil reacted was one of gratitude and a form of sentiment.
Whether it be one-sided or not, this interaction has symbolism. This moment and the conclusion told viewers what it needed to.
Whether viewers see the ending as justified and what Peter’s motive was could be debated, I do think that the ending was a great way to conclude it. Whether viewers think Phil was the true villain and deserved his fate or if Peter was the true villain or was justified, it was a suitable conclusion. This was a story that didn’t need a happy ending to be good.
All and all, I would certainly recommend this movie. I know it might not be for everyone, but the subtle details, cast, and story was interesting. I would give it an 8 out of 10.