Acton Institute Powerblog

The Power of the Dog is everything that is wrong with Hollywood

(Image credit: Netflix)

Determined to destroy the Western, masculinity, and every shred of self-respect, this 12x-Oscar-nominated film from Jane Campion finally catches up to its own conceits, but far too late.

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My long series on Oscar movies is coming to an end with angry words about Hollywood. To summarize, I liked Wes Anderson, loved Paul Thomas Anderson, was amused by Ridley Scott, disappointed by Steven Spielberg, and disgusted by Guillermo Del Toro. Of course, this is of no importance to the artists themselves, who have fame to worry about rather than my opinions—but for thoughtful conservatives, understanding art’s place in our democracy and the reflections of artists on what’s wrong with America today is of some importance, I daresay.

American art is one thing, however, and Hollywood another. The darling of the Oscars—12 nominations—is an utterly contemptible movie called The Power of the Dog, a Western made by New Zealander Jane Campion (The Piano), who has no idea about America, no love for the Western, and who suffers from bad taste to boot. If I may offer my bid for a preemptive cancellation in our ongoing culture war madness, I can say that the big lesson I learned watching this movie is that women who fashion themselves “progressive” shouldn’t make Westerns. I also learned another lesson: Such women seem to hate America’s past and power because they really hate American men. It’s no doubt couched in a protest against “toxic masculinity,” but I would argue it goes deeper. A Hollywood so feminized is not worth anyone’s attention, and Oscar recognition for such ideologically infused fare doesn’t have anything to do with honoring excellence.

The Power of the Dog was made according to the principle that, if you have talent, you should be willing to mutilate your soul; that’s the path to acting success in Hollywood. The film’s actors, led by Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock, The Imitation Game), accordingly torture themselves and bore the audience. Cumberbatch plays the least convincing cowboy in history, something on the order of watching John Wayne play Genghis Khan. But why single him out? All the characterizations mistake caricature for seriousness, yet they were richly rewarded with Oscar nominations for their performances.

Cumberbatch is supposed to be a rancher in Montana in 1925—a middle-aged man, cruel, abrupt, trying too hard to come up with vulgarities. The ranch hands all look up to him, perhaps because he’s pretty; he beats a horse, so you can tell how evil he is. Unfortunately, he neither is truly imposing nor possesses the genuine toughness that would befit someone in his vocation, and ends up looking like he merely enjoys parading around in chaps. Had he been asked to play a good guy rather than a baddie, his character would have been of absolutely no interest—he simply cannot bear the burden of all the sentimental cinematography and music (again, Oscar nominated for cheap pretension).

As you can probably imagine, when a liberal makes a Western these days, you know the dude who plays the tough-guy “manly man” is secretly gay but can’t come out of the closet, because in the past they didn’t have tolerance and inclusivity and diversity. Potentially, he was also sexually abused, which traumatized him for life and that’s why he’s taking his anger out on others. After all, men are nothing but scared boys. You can imagine what it says about progressive women that they like to think this way about men, not to mention what it says about Hollywood that it desperately wants to believe this to be true, and also what it says about artists whose grasp of the cosmic problem of mankind reduces men to such now-stereotypical nonsense.

So with the oppressor, now with the victims. Kirsten Dunst’s character runs a local diner, and Jesse Plemons (her IRL husband) ranches with the evil Cumberbatch. They play the sweet, soft couple who want to make a nice life in Montana but find themselves blighted by all this spectacle cruelty. Life has been one unending series of misfortunes and miseries, but their hearts are pure—they’re able to communicate with each other and trust themselves. These people are both very traumatized but, apparently, not in the least defensive.

This is a characterization that even by the lights of liberal psychotherapy makes no sense except for wishful thinking. They are supposed to be weak, in order to be innocent or pure, but also incredibly strong, so that suffering doesn’t in fact make anything worse for them. They must further have a fanatic faith in their own purity or else they would be tempted to blame themselves for their own helplessness. But these problems turn out to be easily solved by the supposition that the oppressed will overcome the oppressor because he’s more self-destructive than destructive. The true nature of power, according to the artists’ lights, is key here. If you were to take seriously what this story suggests, you’d conclude it is impossible for any tyranny long to endure—or at least not once the fashionably forward-thinking come along. Ideology, apparently, cures all ills. That’s obviously not true—it’s mad even to think it—but to offer it as a story of the transformation of America from evil men to soft, unmanly goodness, in face of all the evidence, is bordering on the neurotic, if not psychopathic.

So with the victims, now for the better America Kirsten and Jesse will make by their marriage. See, Plemons is the evil rancher’s brother; they have worked together all their lives, but where one has become corrupt, the other remains patiently enduring. So he marries this woman who may be the widow of a suicide—yes, it’s a very morbid story, where the sordid stands in for the human confrontation with evil. But she becomes what in those days would have been called a drunkard because of the evil man, until her effete son, an aspiring artist with a fascination for the morbid, brings everything to a happy end, or at least an end to the nonsense.

The boy is the only one who will not endure the suffering, the insults, the vulgarity. But confronting the evil man involves the “artist” in a terrible corruption. Precisely to the extent that leftist ideology requires that victims overthrow their oppressors, such confrontation forces victims to become like their oppressors, and the movie’s conclusion, in a unique moment of self-awareness, suggests that, indeed, liberal sentimentality about softness and hatred of men has poisoned the hearts of a supposedly buoyant, artistic future. The boy, it is suggested, loves death, too, and has a lot of hatred in him. The movie certainly helps along that corruption for its loving audience. This is Hollywood in 2022.

Lest you think my critique overly harsh, tendentious, or downright bigoted, I give you an assessment of the film by a much-loved character actor who has appeared in many a Western himself, Sam Elliott (Tombstone, The Ranch). Here are some choice quotes from an appearance he made on Marc Maron’s podcast, as captured by Yahoo News:

“What the [expletive deleted] does this woman from down there know about the American West?”

“Why the [expletive deleted] did she shoot this movie in New Zealand and call it Montana? And say ‘this is the way it was’?”

The 1883 star compared the cowboys in the Netflix film to Chippendales dancers as he stated: “That’s what all these [expletive deleted] cowboys in that movie looked like. They’re running around in chaps and no shirts. There’s all these allusions of homosexuality throughout the movie.”

“Where’s the western in this western? I mean, Cumberbatch never got out of his [expletive deleted] chaps.”

Oh the intolerance!

Titus Techera

Titus Techera is the executive director of the American Cinema Foundation.