The Power of the Dog has reigned the discussion around the livelihood of the western genre. But, is the movie a western?
The Power of the Dog is the most nominated movie for this year’s Academy Awards. The Jane Campion movie has been praised by critics, labeled a modern western and is proof that the genre is still alive, but can it truly be called a western? The lines that defined this genre are now blurred, as it no longer exists as it once did.
The western genre died down for a number of reasons since its mid 20th century golden age. Once in a while, a film comes out that brings back the question about its integrity as a genre. For instance, the Coen Brothers have successfully blended the genre with contemporary takes like No Country for Old Men, and even Quentin Tarantino brought his style to it with Django Unchained.
The Power of the Dog is another of those examples, but Campion’s take, based on a novel with the same name by Thomas Savage, is not a typical western. In fact, besides featuring cowboys, guns, ranches and deserted landscapes, the film lacks the main characteristics that built the genre in the first place. In fact, Sam Elliott, himself a western veteran, recently criticized The Power of the Dog in an interview, claiming that the film makes the American West “look like Chippendales dancers.”
While western movies have existed since the early days of cinema, the genre really picked up from the 1930s onward, and its golden age was during the 1950s, the decade when Hollywood produced more westerns than any other genre, until the 1970s. It immortalized actors like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, as well as the craft of the great directors Howard Hawks, Sam Peckinpah, John Ford and Sergio Leone.
Usually these movies feature a plot line set in the late 19th century and involve elements of the period of the American frontier era — outlaws or bandits in a lawless region, towns in the middle of a vast desert with a local sheriff, ect. Perhaps the most iconic of its features were the duels and shootouts. There was even a specific shot, legitimized by Howard Hawks, called the “American shot” or “Cowboy shot,” which is a medium shot of characters from head to knee, cutting underneath where a cowboy would holster his pistols.
Scholars also argue that the western was born during a crisis of masculinity, when advances in society started to threaten its hegemony. Urbanization, industrialization and women’s advances in society may have contributed to the affirmation of the heteronormativity of white, US born, lonely cowboys. The Power of the Dog, however, subverts most of these specifics. It is a profound self-critic on what this hyper masculinity is, specifically when its protagonist Phil Burbank, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, fights so much to hide his true self in favor of socially acceptable masculinity.
However, Campion’s film is not alone in this subversion. The resurgence of the genre in the past two decades is precisely redefining social issues through the lens of the western, the same way it was done a century ago. The movements for women, LGBTQ+ people and people of color resulted in modern westerns such as The Homesman, Brokeback Mountain and The Harder They Fall, to name a few. Even Westworld uses a Wild West theme park as a background to explore philosophical issues, where guests can indulge their fantasies and desires without consequences.
Films evolve along with society’s changes; Therefore, there will always be space for exploring nuances, blending genres and deconstructing their characters. The Power of the Dog is not a western by its original definition. Nowadays, no film will be, but it is definitely a modern take that proves the western has the potential to wander further than the limits of its inception.
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