The Conservative Critic
Can someone named Benedict Cumberbatch be a cowboy?
The Conservative Critic Meter Check: The Power of the Dog
One of the films leading the early awards buzz is Netflix’s newest drama, The Power of the Dog. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel of the same name authored by Thomas Savage in 1976. The film boasts seasoned acting talent and acclaimed source material as well as some relatively unknown writing and directing talent which can combine to be a perfect storm for quality and critical acclaim.
Is the film a sum of its high quality parts? Or is Benedict Cumberbatch as a cowboy one bridge too far? The Conservative Critic will ask: Is it entertaining? Does it have artistic/intellectual value? And finally – Is it liberal propaganda?
The Conservative Critic Meter Check: The Power of the Dog
Overall Rating: Art House Good
Even in giving this film a moderate score, I know the critics are probably sleeping with it under their pillows and propping it up next to their proverbial Bibles. To its absolute credit, the film truly was a work of art. Set in the 1920s, just post industrialization and the true end of the cowboy era as it was known in the west up until that point, the film is visual perfection. It is as if a Steinbeck novel leapt from the page into life somehow perfectly demonstrating through the visuals of one ranch the entire global narrative of an era.
The story follows two brothers, Phil and George Burbank, who own and operate a ranch in the rural western United States. The brothers are drifting apart as values begin to diverge until George ultimately marries a public house operator with an artistic and sensitive son. When he brings the woman and her son to live at the ranch, Phil’s resentment of his distance from his brother and his emasculation (perceived or otherwise) as the woman takes charge of the house deepens and is assigned to the woman and in-turn her son. As the story progresses, Phil’s relationship with the boy takes an unexpected turn and alliances are tested.
The artistic quality is simply not enough to justify a truly exceptional review even through the lens of what it sought to achieve. The Power of the Dog is tedious. It is both boring and somehow, with not much at all happening, extremely confusing. Or perhaps extremely simple but viewers spend the whole movie searching for more. Over an hour into the film, viewers can replay what has actually happened and what is going on in one sentence. The poetry in its simplicity is all together lost in its meandering. Its particular brand of artistic presence cannot overcome the boredom enough to overcome good for great. When a film is truly art, it’s no longer boring even with a simple or emotionally complex plot as is demonstrated by so many award winning pieces including last year’s Academy Award winner, Nomadland.
Further – the liberal propaganda is extremely palpable. The film’s main theme is “toxic masculinity” which is ever popular with screaming feminists and beta liberal males.
Is it entertaining?
The Power of the Dog really takes its sweet time. It explores only one or two relationships and one storyline over the course of two hours and six minutes. Ultimately I had to watch it in two settings because I could not suffer through the film in one chunk. It is not recommended for any viewer who seeks a casual or pleasurable viewing experience. The Power of the Dog is for art house lovers and filmies only and even then, only those with a lot of patience and who may particularly enjoy depression era visuals and old timey accents.
Does it have artistic/intellectual value?
Rating: Very much
It is beautifully shot, scored and well performed. The film looks like a Charles M. Russell painting comes to life. When viewing, one can almost feel the rugged landscape and the isolation of the ranch which serves as the primary setting. There is a particular scene where wind is allowed to unrelentingly whip at the hair and clothes of the untethered Rose Gordon-Burbank played by Kirsten Dunst (Spider-Man, Melancholia) in a way that creates a tangible rawness. Chapped skin, tangled hair and unwieldy jackets are pulled to mind as realistically as though one was standing there themselves. These kinds of tactile, almost fourth wall breaking scenes make the film extraordinary in its composition. Director Jane Campion has really achieved something special.
Additionally, the performances are strong. Dunst is at her best as an anxious but willful woman lost in a world where she’s been left without the physical or emotional tools to fend for herself and the son she loves. Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr. Strange, Sherlock) as the weathered and antagonistic Phil Burbank is well outside of type and extremely believable in his nuanced and empathetic approach to the character. Uniquely to roles such as these, Cumberbatch at no time inserts his own palpable judgement on the behavior of his character. It is clear he has fully adopted motivation and taken his own side. Jesse Plemmons as the more business friendly and straightforward George Burbank, brings credibility and strength to a primarily secondary role. Kodi Smit-McPhee (X-Men: Apocalypse, Dolemite is My Name) as the delicate and creative Peter Gordon, has almost no lines but very nearly steals the entire film from his more seasoned counterparts.
Finally, the source material and its adaptation is both unique and beautifully written. While the liberal nature of its themes makes it written for a different audience than readers here, putting that aside it’s very well conceptualized. Based on a true story of a gay man living at the end of the cowboy era in America, the story allows for all its characters to be heroes in their own mind and for all of them to live and demonstrate deep imperfections. Mirroring the closeted nature of the true story, no character is ever fully revealed in their sexuality (except man and wife, Rose and George Burbank) and activities which are masculine can read has rather homoerotic and the reverse. The more gentile of gestures can be the most masculine. The subtleties of these implications and shifts are masterful and captured well on screen.
Is it liberal propaganda?
The film is about how masculinity is bad and ultimately derived from deeply repressed homosexual tendancies. The perspective of this film is extremely liberal in this way, not accounting for the possibility that masculinity can be positive in many instances and that sensitivity or femininity can be toxic (to be fair the latter is somewhat addressed in the complicated nature of Rose Gordon’s character).
The issue of personality and trained social behaviors is extremely complicated. Some toxic behavior is brought on by repressed homosexuality due the the shame and fear some men (and women) may feel for having desires outside of what they consider “normal” or “acceptable.” But certainly not all or even close to all toxic behavior is derived this way and not all toxic behavior manifests as “traditionally masculine.” Sometimes, particularly in a rugged landscape where lives are on the line, forcefulness and even a certain amount of meanness can be a useful personality trait which can save lives and achieve greater efficiency. The traditionally masculine impulse for physical conflict resolution, decisiveness and power struggle can be extremely suitable to a person, family unit and society as a whole.
On its own, the film simply has a perspective and its a liberal perspective. But together with the modern idea that our young men and boys are inherently bred to disrespect women, other races, LGBTQ individuals and everyone around them; the film’s themes strike me as particularly propagandized. Whether or not boys are interested in making paper flowers or shooting guns does not define their level of goodness. Society benefits from masculine characteristics and we should not collectively shame those traits or teach our boys to homogenize into more sensitive or more artistic personalities in order to better suit the whims of progressive idealized society.