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The Power of the Dog: A Short Review

Among my many favorite fiction genres as a boy were Westerns and I remain fascinated about them to this day.  Blame it on the Greenville County Library Bookmobile that would park every couple of weeks at Ebenezer Welcome Baptist Church bringing a random selection of pulpy Max Brand Westerns for me to devour. Brand, whose real name was Frederick Schiller Faust and was known as King of the Pulp, wrote over 220 Westerns before he was killed in WW2. Faust was no Faulkner but his readers were never confused about who the heroes were. 

As a teenager, I moved on to Stephen King’s Dark Tower series that chronicles the adventures of Roland, the last gunslinger and his search for the tower. Though King once commented that his writing was the “literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries”, I disagree. Drawing from the poetry of Robert Browning’s Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, King continues a long literary tradition that traces directly back to Beowulf. A tradition of storytelling about the individual warrior/knight/gunslinger who completes his quest in the face of overwhelming odds. A tradition that represents the best of Western Civilization and American Individualism. King went so far as to say that JFK was our last gunslinger, though I would add Reagan to the list. Should we included Biden and Trump, the princes of non-interventionism and isolationism? Nah. Wearing the big iron would be wasted on them.

As a young adult, I discovered Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, a disturbingly apocalyptic novel set in the 1850’s West, whose ending proves that as a genre, Westerns can leave us with the big questions about fallen humanity, redemption, science, religion and the personification of the prince of the power of the air. In fact, Blood Meridian raises such a disturbing religious question that it has become known as unfilmable by Hollywood – surprising since Hollywood has been able to profit from all types of Westerns even ones with misinterpreted religious undertones like The Power of the Dog.

As a middle-aged adult, I could have been fine without discovering The Power of the Dog, a film that uses the 1920’s West to frame a story of gay-on-gay violence with a little bit of a messiah complex thrown in as suggested by the title taken from Psalm 22:20. The film begins with the boorish behavior of the main character Phil Burbank, not very well played by a chap-wearing banjo-picking Benedict Cumberbatch, toward, well . . . everyone.

Phil’s rudeness, apparently driven by his struggle with his sexuality, continues throughout the film until he is murdered by his brother’s new stepson, Peter, who also struggles with his sexuality and who is mad at Phil for being rude to Peter’s mother. If we are to believe that Peter represents the messianic figure suggested by the film’s title as being Christ-like in the defense of his mother, then I find that, well . . . unbelievable. There is more mommy-complex than messiah about Peter.

In my minds-eye of the West, rude Phil would have been shot for his behavior at the beginning of the film and saved us a tedious slog through this tragedy of manners, but then I do approach Westerns with a good amount of toxic masculinity.

The Power of the Dog contends for the 2022 Academy Award for Best Picture this weekend. A hero’s tale it is not.


  1. Daniel Lybrand

    Just more of the Left’s agenda of tearing down any and all American ideals and morality. In this case it’s being carried out by foreign actors and director, and Hollywood will love them for it.

  2. Kathy Davis

    My Dad loved westerns – and he had a library of Zane Grey novels. Those were his favorites of the western novels. My nephew loves westerns as well and I’m always looking at the thrift stores for them.

    Keep writing – I agree with you that this would not have been the best Picture Academy Award.

    • Tommy Stringer

      Zane Grey was great also, I always like Grey and Brand better than Louis L’Amour.

      • Susan Milford

        Wow! My mother loved Zane Grey too!

  3. Susan Milford

    Please consider continuing the contemporary collection of lit crit going. At some point, college English majors are going to need it as a supplement to the large traditional textbook recently supplemented by Tolkien and CS Lewis critiques – that is, in colleges where the history of lit crit is still in the curriculum. I’m discouraged about students’ higher level thinking skills when it comes to reading anyhow. Will reading and writing continue even? Other than videoed propaganda?

    • Tommy Stringer

      I believe that reading and writing will continue if only as a way for literate people to calm their minds and collect their thoughts. I have been encouraged by my son’s reaction to the fiction that he has been required to read in high school. Up until now he has been a non-fiction reader, primarily because of the internet. The internet is great for finding facts. It is not so great for finding great fiction, other than (as you say) propaganda.

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