Review – Dr. Strange As A Cowboy? (“The Power of the Dog”)

Despite the title, this movie has nothing to do with canines or any power they might possess. It’s actually based on the 1967 Western novel by Thomas Savage and has been adapted by writer/director, Jane Campion (The Piano, Angel At My Table).

It’s certainly Oscar season, with another slam-bang Academy Award-winning movie hitting the theaters and Netflix. This time around it’s a Western and starring MCU favorite, Benedict Cumberbatch as acerbic and mean-spirited Phil Burbank, circa 1925 Montana, along with his shy and reserved brother, George (Jesse Plemmons), that Phil keeps calling “‘fatso”. Together they run the profitable Burbank cattle ranch with a bunch of ranch hands & some servants. But George gets smitten one day with the local restaurant cook in town, Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), and decides to marry her. However, this marriage includes her college-age effeminate son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), much to the anger of Phil, who delights in not only mentally torturing Rose, but bullying Peter for his slight nature.

After Peter catches Phil skinny-dipping one afternoon in a secluded lake, Phil does a 180 and accepts Peter as his brother-in-law, even going as far as grooming him to be a ranch hand and making a lariat rope for him. Why? It seems that Phil has been looking for a replacement for his late mentor and BFF, Bronco Henry, and Peter might fit the bill. Meanwhile, Rose isn’t handling life at the ol’ homestead so well and starts to hit the bottle pretty hard, leading her to make some poor decisions and angering Phil in the process. Just as you think the movie is heading in one direction, BOOM! The third act sneaks in there all stealth-like, pulling the rug out and delivering an ending I did not see coming.

Campion, who has done some rather forgettable movies (Holy Smoke!, In The Cut, Bright Star) has also given us films like The Piano and Portrait of a Lady, so this one has elements of both. Starting off as a long, tedious character study, there’s not much to hang on to as Phil & George just go about their day-to-day lives, but right around the corner is the second act when Peter joins the cast, and then the film starts to buzz with possibilities. Slowly, deliberately, it cleverly weaves in a third plot that. . . well, I won’t give that secret away. All I’m saying is, don’t give up as you start to watch it; you’ll be satisfied by the ending. Not to mention the acting here is first-rate!

Cumberbatch never disappoints, delivering a subtle, yet cracker-jack performance as the ranch foreman you do NOT want to mess with. Plemmons is very good, but look for Oscar noms for Dunst & Smit-McPhee. Dunst is positively devastating as the lonely, drunk, depressed, and put-upon woman whose life is in shambles. Smit-McPhee, with those huge Amanda Siegfried eyes, is terrific and looks like he’d be right at home in a slasher film or a reboot of Psycho. And while we’re at it, check out the beautiful cinematography of Ari Wegner; the movie looks gorgeous! Oh, this film also features full-frontal nudity, so there’s that.

**Now showing in select theaters and streaming on Netflix

Hud (1963)

Based on the 1961 Larry McMurty Western novel, Horseman, Pass By, this multiple Academy Award-winning film features some incredible acting by stars Melvin Douglas, Patricia Neal, Brandon DeWilde, and the #1 box office draw, Paul Newman.

In a black & white small rural town in Texas, we meet Hud Bannon (Newman), an ambitious, self-centered womanizer who lives on his father’s decent-sized cattle ranch. Hud’s father, cantankerous old Homer (Douglas), is a proud and principled widower, living with his sensitive & impressionable teenage grandson, Lonnie (DeWilde), along with their housekeeper and cook, Alma (Neal). While Lonnie sees Alma as a mother figure, Hud doesn’t really have designs on her; he prefers banging married women and not getting caught.

After a cow dies of mysterious circumstances on their land, the doctor tells Homer it might be the cattleman’s worst nightmare: hoof & mouth disease! While that is going on, Hud is getting drunk and telling off his father every chance he gets, leading to many heated arguments. As much as Hud is a cad and villain, Lonnie still looks up to him and even gets into a drunken fistfight with him one night. Alma even has to fight him off one night as Hud almost rapes her in a drunken haze. Things escalate as Hud plans to usurp his father by plotting to take away the ranch, claiming his dad is mentally incompetent.

In a tragic and unsettling third act, the vet comes back with the terrible news: Homer’s entire herd of cattle is infected and must be destroyed. In a gruesome and rather disturbing scene, all the cattle are rounded up and shot on sight, leaving Homer and his family with no future income. The finale, shall we say, does not have a happy ending. This riveting screenplay adaptation is by the husband & wife team of Irving Ravetch & Harriet Frank, Jr. (Norma Rae, Murphy’s Romance) and was nominated for Best Screenplay. The dialogue is sharp and stinging and, best of all, delivered by powerhouse actors of the time.

Yes, you have Neal, Newman, and Douglas all giving damn fine performances here, but it’s all because of the masterful direction of Hollywood legend, Martin Ritt. Shooting in black & white (with incredible cinematography by James Hong Howe), the film is stark, stunning, and void, just like the barren countryside of Texas where filmed. Newman, using a Western drawl, is at his peak, being detestable and unlikable, yet posters of him from this movie sold like hotcakes, confusing the star as to why he was loved as a villain! Neal gives a poignant, sorrowful performance as, IRL, her young daughter had just passed away. And Douglas is the icing on the cake, as he holds this movie together as the grizzled old patriarch of this family. Yeah, they just don’t make ’em like this anymore!   

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