What’s a “Western”? Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog”

“The power of the dog is all those urges, all those deep, uncontrollable urges that can come and destroy us.”

– Jane Campion, director, screenwriter

What’s a “western”? Moviegoers and film critics have been asking that age-old question and aiming to answer it, too, especially ever since The Power of the Dog arrived on Netflix at the end of 2021. Jane Campion’s movie, which was filmed in her native New Zealand, has the look and feel of a Hollywood western. It has bronco-busting cowboys and a few Indians, albeit not of the hoop and holler kind, and it doesn’t spew the myths of the frontier.

Set in Montana in 1925, the year that American readers fell in love with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, it boasts wide open space and spectacular landscapes, though Campion’s landscapes also have something mysterious and spiritual about them. The film has a cowboy named Phil Burbank, a Yale graduate, who is reminiscent of “Johnny Guitar,” played by Sterling Hayden in Nicholas Ray’s film of the same name, though unlike Johnny, Phil plays the banjo, not the guitar.

Is Phil a good guy or a bad guy? Is he as mean and ornery as Jack Wilson, the hired gunfighter played to perfection by Jack Palance in Shane, a shadowy character that kids have loved to boo and hiss. Or is Phil more like John Wayne who owned the western for much of his career and who brilliantly played “the Ringo Kid,” the outlaw turned good citizen, in John Ford’s classic Stagecoachfrom 1939, when spies began to share screen time with cowboys.

Of course, there’s no simple definition of the western. No one single size fits every individual work in a genre that includes landmark films such as High Noon3:10 to YumaGunfight at the O.K.CorralRed River with Wayne and Montgomery Clift, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and McCabe & Mrs Miller, in which Mrs. Miller (Julie Christie) smokes opium.

Eminently suited for mass production  by the studio system, the western migrated to TV and was reinvented as Gunsmoke and Have Gun – Will Travel, which I loved when I was a boy, along with The Lone Ranger and Hopalong Cassidy. Tonto, played by Jay Silverheels, never did seem like a real Indian

Also, the western was eminently suited for export to Japan, where the samurai reprised the role of the gunfighter, and to Italy where Sergio Leoni made his spaghetti-westerns with the iconic Clint Eastwood in masterpieces such A Fistful of Dollars in which money and bullets mix madly. To Campion’s credit, (she wrote the screenplay and also directed) she has not transported the western to New Zealand, though she seems to have watched and digested a ton of westerns, taking from them what she has wanted, over the past decade or so, and making up the rest: including an alcoholic, flapper of the Jazz Age played by Kirsten Dunst; and her son, Peter Gordon in the role of a shy, slender artistic lad who is well played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, a 26-year-old Australian, who acts like he has a long career ahead of him.

Campion’s movie has the external dramatic conflicts of traditional westerns, without six guns and gunfights. It also has the internal conflicts that take place in movies like High Noon (1952), in which Gary Cooper as Marshal Will Kane comes out of retirement, battles his own demons and brings frontier justice to the town of Hadleyville. John Wayne told an interviewer that he considered High Noon “the most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” Coming from Wayne, that’s understandable. In the 1950s, Carl Foreman’s High Noon seemed at times to be a parable about the cowardice of Americans in the age of McCarthyism and the crusade against “The Reds.” Johnny Guitar(1954) has also been viewed as a commentary on the phenomenon of the mass psychology of the mob.

If Campion wants her movie to be a parable about life in the twenty-first century she isn’t saying. At least she’s not broadcasting what she has aimed to communicate to the audience. Still, at the end of the picture, Peter, the city lamb turned into a lion, opens The Book of Common Prayer and reads Psalm 22L20: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.” Campion herself has said that the title was meant “as a kind of warning.“ She went to say, “The power of the dog is all those urges, all those deep, uncontrollable urges that can come and destroy us.” Campion has also connected “the power of the dog” specifically to Donald Trump.

The movie itself holds its cards close to its chest and doesn’t sermonize in an overt way. At times it seems to change direction and double back on itself as though it alters its mind about itself. Little things and small gestures matter greatly in The Power of the Dog: human generosity across ethnic lines and in the face of stubbornness; and the act of passing on wisdom and lore when so much goes by so quickly and is forgotten.

John Wayne would no doubt call Campion’s picture “un-American.” He’d point to the fact that the director was from New Zealand and that there is no one as loud and belligerent as him in the film.

Indeed, for Campion there are no more John Waynes, Alan Ladds or Gary Coopers; no lone gunslingers who rid the world of evil and make the frontier safe for white folk. These are different times. The Power of the Dog is a western for our different, difficult times.

Is it a western? Yes! and No! But, pardner, let’s not call it a western or a melodrama and shove it in a category. It’s a movie that breaks new ground and that can’t be easily or accurately labeled. Leave it to a woman and a New Zealander conscious of the deep, uncontrollable urges that can come and destroy us—and who treats cinema as an art form—to recreate an epic once thought to be uniquely American, but that’s now regarded as uniquely global.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.