The power of Cumberbatch and his reimagining of the cowboy

The Power Of The Dog has unleashed conversations on the takedown of the ‘toxic’ Western cowboy. Does it work? Or does it not?

By Vinay Kamat

Published: Fri 10 Dec 2021, 11:18 PM

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

Without much ado, here’s a brass cannon salute to a breakaway Western. The Power Of The Dog is a linear Netflix thriller that makes the best use of your home screen with wide, medium and close shots to give the reel feel of a Western. Director Jane Campion and team put a new saddle on the traditional Western and craft a new genre, constantly mocking the old West folklore of the macho man.

The Dog has a linear storyline: there are no flashbacks to toggle your mind. Campion chooses to make the audience think through the plot and its steady stream of mini climaxes. Even the protagonist’s death is not explained in forensic detail; the audience is pushed to make sense of the tell-tale scenes and arrive at the ultimate logic. The last scene is a metaphoric finale: it’s a slow walk into the sunrise for George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) and Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) as they freely kiss. It’s certainly not a Gary Cooper stride into the sunset with Grace Kelly. Yes, Campion is clear about that.

The beauty of the surrounding landscape weighs heavily against the ugliness in the ranch. One establishing shot shows a herd of cattle and cowboys filling up the horizon in spectacular fashion. Cinematographer Ari Wegner loves to dwell on a mountain range that casts the shadow of a barking dog, the leitmotif of the storyline. As the camera oscillates between minds (the faces inside the ranch) and spaces (the nature outside), you start picking the clues to the family’s secrets.

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

At the epicentre of a genre-defining drama is a deadly protagonist. What Campion sets in motion is the era of BC — Benedict Cumberbatch. BC impressed us as an egghead detective in BBC’s Sherlock. He tantalises us as a mean cowboy in The Dog. If he walks away with an Oscar next year, it’s because he has reimagined the cowboy. From now on, BC will rank among the best baddies in the Western genre. What makes him so very different is his urbane swag, millennial machismo, mind games, and Michael Keaton-type brooding demeanour. You wonder whether he’s a real cowboy.

He is — absolutely. Take in all mean cowboys Hollywood has paraded in Westerns. Lee Van Cliff (Kid Vengeance), Eli Wallach (The Magnificent Seven), Gene Hackman (Unforgiven), Powers Boothe (Tombstone), Eduardo Fajardo (Django), Henry Fonda (Once Upon A Time In The West), Ramon Rojo (A Fistful Of Dollars), etc. Without blazing guns, villain-amplifying scripts and strong foils, they wouldn’t have cut a single notch.

Phil Burbank (BC) cuts several notches on his own. He has no gun, kills no one, and lives the life of a ranch recluse. He’s in cowboy gear 24/7, mocks the well-mannered townies, lords it over his dandy bro George, plays mind games with his brother’s wife Rose Gordon, and intimidates her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). He carves out a niche for himself as a closet cowboy. But this closet cowboy is constantly changing as we keep watching him.

Campion gradually reveals the many facets of Phil. There’s a romantic Phil talking to his bro: “Do you know what we should do?... Go camping again in the mountains and shoot ourselves some fresh elk liver. Cook right there on the coals. Like Bronco Henry taught us.” (Henry is often mentioned in the narrative as a mentor who raised the young Burbanks, very much like the wolf nurtured brothers Remus and Romulus.)

There’s a nasty Phil barking at Rose: “I am not your brother. You’re a cheap schemer.”

Then, there’s a reflective.

Phil talking to Peter: “Bronco Henry told me that a man was made by patience in the odds against him.”

But we wish we could have seen more of Phil. For Campion, less is more, less is poignant. Her protagonist seems to echo what Doc Holliday (Val Kilmer) says in Tombstone: “I’ve not yet begun to defile myself.” Audiences see in Phil a dormant outlaw. With a ramrod-straight dare like Yul Brynner’s, an overpowering tone like Gene Hackman’s and an acting style that could top a Hollywood listicle. If you are still suffering from a Clint Eastwood hangover, having soaked in his films all these years, you will never be able to spot the newest kid in cowboy country. Sadly, you’ll miss a truly outstanding performance in a Western by a rank outsider.

Campion’s storyline engages the audience and pushes it to question the plot. Was Phil involved with his mentor Henry? Was the effeminate Peter drawn to Phil? Are there any more secrets to uncover? The strength of the narrative lies in embedding all the answers in the twists and turns of the plot. What the audience gets is an intelligent narrative that probes the mind. It’s tale wagging the dog.

Perhaps it’s best to see The Dog twice. It’s not just Phil who mocks dandies, townies, weaklings, and all the men without spurs. It’s Campion mocking the Western and its defining elements. The Dog’s real hero and strongman is the weakling Peter. A man is made by obstacles, Peter says, quoting his father. “And you have to try and remove them.” Peter removes his. So does Campion, as she frees the Western from its trite legacy and macho moorings.

Vinay Kamat is editor-in-chief of Khaleej Times

More news from Long Reads