Based upon the kudos count to date, Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” clearly ranks as one of the top awards-contending films of 2021. For those fascinated by that raucous, rowdy, storm-the-barricades Hollywood moment known as the “New Hollywood,” which started roughly in the mid-’60s and was exhausted or vanquished — depending upon who’s telling the history — by the end of the 1970s, it’s also the perfect embodiment of that era’s fondness for revisionism, both historical and cinematic, as well as sexual frankness wherever the filmmakers could find it.
Which shouldn’t be surprising, given that the film’s taut, deadly source material is Thomas Savage’s piercing 1967 modern Western, “The Power of the Dog.” Set in 1925, a little over a decade past the 1913 setting of Sam Peckinpah’s revolutionary 1969 revisionist Western, “The Wild Bunch,” “Dog,” like “Bunch,” skewers the American Dream along with myths of rough macho cowpokes with golden hearts and tough hides. And like “Bunch,” money, power and hypocrisy all fuel the combustible mixture that leads to an explosive conclusion. Scores are settled, lies are revealed, the wicked pay, but where the “Bunch” went up in flames along with their adversaries, “Dog’s” protagonists triumph over evil and the West winds up a kinder, gentler place than it was when the story began.
“Dog” fits nicely besides films such as John Huston’s 1967 melodrama “Reflections in a Golden Eye” and John Flynn’s 1967 drama, “The Sergeant,” with Marlon Brando in “Eye” and Rod Steiger in “The Sergeant.” And both films centered on stalwart American military officers grappling uneasily with forbidden penchants for male companionship, just as Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” (1964) featured a General Jack D. Ripper who feared women were robbing him of his “precious bodily fluids” and Civil War Yankee soldier Clint Eastwood feared a deadly repressed spinster played by Geraldine Page in Don Siegel’s “Beguiled.”
Lastly, by the time the New Hollywood was turning over the town’s established rules and mores of what a movie could be or do, they do so by benefitting from two decades of randy, ribald Western genre helmers who had worked studiosly on putting lots of lust in all that dust. Standing on the (bare) shoulders of cowgirls and their boys, psycho-sexual Westerns like “Dog” can trace their roots back to the ’40s steamy oaters such as “The Outlaw” (1943) and “Duel in the Sun,” (1946), matched and surpassed in audacity and edginess in the ’50s by “Johnny Guitar” (1954) and Anthony Mann’s 1958 Western noir, “Man of the West,” with no fewer than one rape and two strippings, one female and one male.
Prostitutes riled up American Westerns in the ’70s, figuring prominently in “The Cheyenne Social Club” (1970), “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1971) and are at the heart of a movie that first took shape in 1976 as a screen story by David Webb Peoples but didn’t arrive on screen until 1992. The New Hollywood was long gone when Clint Eastwood finally, 16 years later, brought “Unforgiven” to unforgettable life, but Oscar was there waiting for him all the same.
As might be the case with the long, strange and powerfully rewarding trip of Campion’s “Dog.”
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