The Power of the Dog is all the rage, but Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven remains the undisputed anti-western masterpiece

You can consider The Power of the Dog an arthouse western with a star in the lead role and recognizable actors in the supporting cast.  It’s a character study more than an epic.  Unforgiven, on the other hand, is a blockbuster western with a rich, dark underbelly. 

Later this month, Jane Campion’s disturbing The Power of the Dog is poised to sweep the Oscars.  The anti-western featuring a riveting performance by Benedict Cumberbatch is nominated for 12 Oscars including Best Director, Best Picture, and Best Actor.  The film has also garnered rave reviews from critics with a 94% rating on the aggregator site, Rotten Tomatoes.  Namrata Joshi from the National Herald writes, “While The Piano remains a haunting exploration of female desire, The Power of the Dog is a long-delayed contemplation on masculinity from the female eye, both about repression and control.”  Elissa Suh from Moviepudding.com claims, “Traces of the feminine are scattered through the film: a garden flower, a paper rose, a nesting family of birds. More than embellishments, these small but potent images are talismans of potential rebirth, reminders of hope.”  Likewise, Marya E. Gates from Crooked Marque notes, “With finely tuned performances, Campion and her crew craft a western stripped to the bone, under which they find a beating heart as tender as it is cruel.”

In my opinion, the film is clearly not for everyone, but there is some truth to these statements.  The ending in particular is haunting and powerful, featuring the rare twist that is both well established and somewhat surprising.  Somehow, we knew this wasn’t going to end well and yet we are disturbed when the fruition finally comes.  The performances are universally excellent, anchored by a truly captivating Benedict Cumberbatch in a rare display that blends the forceful and commanding with an inner weakness and a permanent sadness, a sense of loss you can see in his eyes.  At the same time, the film is so intensely “anti-western” that it can seem slow and meandering as Ms. Campion refuses to conform to convention at almost every turn.  The characters are also difficult to relate to at times, and the choice of scenes can be frustrating:  There are few set pieces here, dramatically and otherwise.  This is no doubt intentional, but in my mind at least the film suffers as a result by denying the audience any real pay off until the end.  Instead, it lingers and unwinds, slowly and expertly crafted, but without really grabbing you and pulling you in at points.

Ultimately, it’s hard for me not to compare it directly with Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece, Unforgiven.  Granted, these comparisons might not seem easy to make at first glance.  Unforgiven is a classic western revenge story about gunslingers, blood money, and a burgeoning frontier town’s struggle to maintain law and order.  On the surface, Mr. Eastwood’s William Munny appears to share little with Mr. Cumberbatch’s Phil Burbank.  If you look deeper, however, the similarities are unmistakable.  Both films are set in a west that is rapidly changing and modernizing, though they take place decades apart in time.  Unforgiven is centered around the twilight of the gunslinger and the emergence of a tamer frontier.  The older characters in the film Munny, Morgan Freeman’s Ned Logan, Gene Hackman’s “Little” Bill Daggett, and Richard Harris’ English Bob all represent the earlier, far more violent era when killing even a US Marshall was standard practice.  The younger generation, however, is depicted as softer, less violent, and far less practiced at killing. They never fought in the Civil War or saw death and destruction on such a massive scale. Munny and Logan’s partner, the Schofield Kid has never even killed a man.  Instead he lies about it, and when he does actually do the irrevocable deed he almost immediately repents, crying that he shot him while taking a shit.  Likewise, the lawmen serving under “Little” Bill Daggett are next to nothing like him.  At times, it seems they can barely wield a weapon, constantly calling on Daggett himself at the first sign of any trouble.

The Power of the Dog takes place over 40 years later in a west where cars are rapidly replacing horses and fancy city clothes are becoming the norm.  This is the twilight of the cowboy mythos itself with Phil Burbank representing the last of his kind.  He is dominant, skilled, a master at everything a cowboy does from taming horses and herding cattle to castrating them with a single swipe of his blade.  The younger generation, represented by his ranch hands and their young lodger, Peter, aren’t nearly as proficient or commanding.  They seem soft and weak, the same as Unforgiven.  Phil Burbank and his brother, George, are also the last connection to the truly wild west.  Both were trained under a figure that looms large in the film, but doesn’t actually appear on screen except in photographs, Bronco Henry.  Phil idolizes Bronco Henry, telling stories about his prowess, and something more.  The film remains indirect, but we can assume that Phil and Henry had a love affair, though Henry was significantly older.  Phil remains haunted by the loss of his friend, mentor, and lover, confused and repressed because of his place torn between two worlds, the masculine Old West and his own homosexual desires.

Eastwood’s William Munny is also haunted by his past, albeit in a different way.  We learn in a title card over the opening shot that he was a notorious killer, alcoholic, and generally mean son of a bitch until he met his wife, who he believes has fully reformed him.  At the start of the film, he hasn’t had a drop to drink in 10 years, even though his wife died from smallpox three years earlier.  Rather than gunslinging and drinking, he spends his days with his two kids attempting quite unsuccessfully to be a hog farmer.  Throughout much of the film, he insists, only partially successfully, that he is no longer the man he was, denying the killer inside.  At the same time, Munny knows he is no farmer and when offered a chance to earn a share of a $1,000 for killing two cowboys who viciously attacked a prostitute, he realizes what this could mean for his children’s future.  Throughout the journey, accompanied by his old partner Ned Logan and new one, the Schofield Kid, the sins of the past linger over the events of the present, inescapable even as the movie makes it unclear what precisely is fact or fiction.

In Eastwood’s hands, the Old West is more myth than legend, a land ruled by violence with death waiting for you in every saloon.  There are three primary stories at play.  Munny’s legend is one he would rather forget, something to be dismissed and downplayed.  If a tale claims he killed two men when he really killed three, he embraces the lower number.  English Bob, on the other hand, has a biographer and is busy talking up his own legend, cutting out the booze and the questionable morality of his killings to spin stories with him as the hero.  “Little” Bill Daggett serves as a foil for both, destroying Bob’s claims, while bragging about some of his own exploits.  Still, much like Munny himself, you get the sense that the past is something Daggett would prefer not to revisit.  In the present, he spends his days building a house beside a river, planning a porch from which to smoke his pipe, and trying to keep the peace, even banning eapons from the town.  In this regard, he is fully aware of the evil men are capable of, and employs harsh measures to prevent fellow gunslingers from shooting up the town to claim the $1,000 reward.  He brutally beats English Bob and Munny, and ultimately kills Ned, which proves to be his undoing when Munny’s long hidden demons are unleashed to deadly effect.

Interestingly, even here we can see parallels with The Power of the Dog.  Phil Burbank also goes through something of an awakening throughout the movie, returning to what he was before through his affection for the young boarder, Peter.  This awakening is effectively the inversion of Eastwood’s Munny.  The dour and taciturn is overturned for an actual human connection, one which seems to redeem him at least somewhat.  He, too, however is ultimately undone by his past when Peter plays along with his affections, only to plot his own revenge for what Phil has done to his mother, psychologically tormenting her and turning her into an alcoholic.  In some sense, Phil dies the same way Daggett does:  It’s unclear if he truly deserves it, but “deserve’s got nothing to do with it” in the Wild West of both movies.  Instead, events happen, you react, you live, or you die, and the consequences of your actions in the future are entirely unclear.

In different ways, both films also take advantage of the unique skill sets and onscreen history of their leading actors.  Clint Eastwood had long established himself as the premiere western star of his era by the time he made Unforgiven.  He brought a long litany of memorable roles as The Man with No Name, the Outlaw Josie Wales, Pale Rider, and others to his performance as William Munny.  The audience knew precisely who he was from the very first shot, allowing him to play against type for the first half of the film.  Rather than the confident killer we’re familiar with, we see an Eastwood that can’t shoot straight or properly ride a horse.  We are, however, almost instinctively aware that this simply cannot be the case for long.  This is an Eastwood movie after all and the “real” Clint will undoubtedly emerge at some point.  The film is able to play on this dichotomy for most of its runtime and it’s not until the final sequence that we truly see the screen legend we know and love in action, gunning down his adversaries after fueling himself with whisky.  Benedict Cumberbatch, however, is known more as an actor’s actor, a thespian that can assume almost any role imaginable, and he had never before led a western or played a character quite like this to my knowledge.  This makes him something of a cypher, where the audience doesn’t know what to expect and to what depths he may ultimately go.  At first, we see him as a taciturn man’s man, the last cowboy, but then other layers emerge as the complexity of his relationship with Bronco Henry and then Peter are revealed.  It’s a complex, layered performance that plays against type as the film progresses.  We can see this as another inversion from Unforgiven:  Eastwood’s inner killer will be revealed and we know this from the start whereas Cumberbatch’s inner feminism is revealed and we do not know this from the start.

Despite these similarities and common themes, the films are distinctly different.  You might consider The Power of the Dog an arthouse western with a star in the lead role and recognizable actors in the supporting cast.  The characters themselves aren’t particularly likable or relatable, and the plot isn’t particularly exciting.  It’s a character study more than an epic.    Unforgiven, on the other hand, is a blockbuster western with a rich, dark underbelly.  The characters are (mostly) engaging.  The scenes pop and the dialogue crackles.  The plot is epic in scope.  This is where I think Unforgiven remains unmatched in the genre.  Crafting a film that pleases a wide audience and simultaneously offers a lot to think about is the rarest of rare achievements, and yet Mr. Eastwood pulls it off effortlessly. Then again, we should not be surprised: He has done the same almost countless times and has compiled a filmography to rival some of the greatest directors of all time.

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