The cowboy gets off his high horse. He doesn’t really need to

I’d probably have enjoyed the film much more if it hadn’t been for the quick-on-the-draw fusillade of conversations that have emerged over its release


Sushmita Bose

Published: Fri 10 Dec 2021, 11:18 PM

Last updated: Fri 10 Dec 2021, 11:22 PM

So, let me just say it out loud: I found The Power Of The Dog rather underwhelming — as a cinematic idiom. For sure, there were Jane Campion’s (characteristic) sweeping arcs of a 1925 Montana landscape (but, in real life, it’s actually post-millennial New Zealand); a fairly gripping, twisted story which is a study of the human psyche, like a Roald Dahl short set in the outback; and getting-into-the-skin roleplays by the cast, although I did think Benedict Cumberbatch — with his pretty-boy, elegantly-high-cheekboned visage — came across as being more overenthusiastic than viciously visceral (as he has been touted to be).

ALSO READ: The power of Cumberbatch and his reimagining of the cowboy

Bottom line: I’d probably have enjoyed the film much more if it hadn’t been for the quick-on-the-draw fusillade of conversations that have emerged over its release — leading up to punters deciding how The Power Of The Dog is already an Oscar winner. The problem emerging out of the arid woodwork is very simple. Instead of viewing the film, and being thought-provokingly entertained by it, one is forced to interpret it as an au contraire Western because it deconstructs the ‘toxic masculinity’ of the Marlboro Man-like lone ranger. He’s not such a man after all, he’s layered with insecurities, fraught with vulnerabilities... stuff that he attempts to hide behind his swagger and his horseback strut. Hurrah for taking the cap off the cowboy, for doing away with all the bluster, for debunking a myth misled men spanning generations gruffly swore by: “Never apologize, mister, it’s a sign of weakness” — like John Wayne said in She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (1949).

In the 1980s, when my family bought a VCR player, watching Westerns used to be a weekend ritual for us. Stagecoach, The Magnificent Seven, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Hang ‘em High, For A Few Dollars More and so on. We’d debate (Ugly) Eli Wallach’s “When you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk” line from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and make it compete with (Good) Clint Eastwood’s “You see, in this world, there’s two kinds of people, my friend; those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig.” Endlessly. Reverentially. Not caring whether these characters ran on an overdose of testosterone-driven machismo — one that is gradually losing its credibility in an unfolding politically-correct and gender-neutral world.

And when Franco Nero dragged along a coffin in Django, and trudged through the wilderness to Rocky Roberts’ quasi-Elvis rendering of “Django, have you always been alone…”, we were all waiting for him to take off his hat so we could see him properly and decide whether or not he was “manlier” than The Man With No Name (aka, Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars).

The cowboy was firmly in the saddle. Maybe a Pale Rider, but never Unforgiven.

Then came the changing compass…

If we do a (manly) shoulder-to-shoulder comparison between Hollywood and Bollywood, one ‘iconic’ counterpart of the rugged cowboy is possibly the Angry Young Man (set into groove most famously by Amitabh Bachchan). I have never seen any orchestrated effort to do a takedown of him. No one is particularly bothered that he used to be the ‘proletariat’ values-toting hero, who took down ‘capitalism’ — and its cacophony — single-handedly. Or that was poverty glorified as being the harbinger of ethics. If you were a shoeshine boy and someone “tossed” money at you after you got his boots to gleam, you’d be unlikely to not pick up your wages simply because you had watched Deewar where the glowering hero had said: “Main aaj bhi pheke huey paise nahin uthata [I don’t pick up money that is thrown at me]”. If you really wanted to relinquish your livelihood at the toss of a coin, you needed to have a way more compelling reason.

One reason why this comparison falls flat is that while Angry Young Man was a movement, hemmed into the straitjacket of the 1970s and 1980s, the genre of Westerns is a culture, straddling almost a century. Roger Ebert had once written, “In hard times, Americans have often turned to the Western to reset their compasses. In very hard times, it takes a very good Western.” Taking off from that moot point, in ‘The Men of Westerns: Masculine Values Through Films’, on, Dylan Hintz writes, “Due to the fact that the majority of Westerns focus on male leads, that moral compass can be largely a focus of men young and old viewing them, and be a creation of the ideas of masculinity that are prevalent at the time. This statement provides the idea that Westerns work as morality stories, and help to establish a prototype for a man to base his idea of masculinity, the ideas of what a man is accountable for, what his responsibilities as being a man are, and what he must do in terms of violence to protect those weaker than him, off of in times of moral dilemma.”

The same (non-metrosexual) ‘masculinity’ has become a casualty in the new world order. Which is fine. But why emasculate the token concept of a celluloid ‘legend’?

In The Power Of The Dog, Cumberbatch’s character goes for an overkill of attributes that “define” a cowboy — including a rather unnecessary scene (or so I thought) of castrating an animal.

But, apparently, he was only trying really hard to camouflage the fact that he has inner fairies — not demons.

(Sushmita Bose is features editor of Khaleej Times)

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