Based on a 1967 novel of the same name, the psychological drama Power of the Dog (2021) was one of last year’s breakout hits in cinema. The Western film, produced by Netflix, dives into some of humanity’s deepest-felt themes, including grief and love, while putting a cast of highly acclaimed actors in one of the richest historical settings: America’s Wild West.
Though the period lasted less than a century, filmmakers and storytellers of all stripes have leaned on the grueling expansionist period that spanned Northern Mexico and the US’s southwestern region. Cowboys, bounty hunters, and miners looking to hit it rich all had to survive in unpredictable conditions.
With incredible imagery to touch on, as well as themes like individualism and survivalism, the West has become a recognized period and setting around the world. It’s permeated entertainment sectors of all stripes, taking root in video games like the Red Dead Redemption and Call of Juarez series.
In casino gaming, the Wild West is also a popular theme for slots players. One title, which has built out an ultimate Wild West theme that includes saloons and bandits, integrates the exciting action of the era into its bonus round features. Whether playing an open-world game or spinning a virtual reel, people enjoy slipping on proverbial boots to play cowboy for a time.
But Power of the Dog touches on deeper themes in the Wild West, like similar projects True Grit and No Country for Old Men. Rather than building out an exhilarating adventure plot, the stories follow some of the grittiest themes present on the lonely, vast frontier—and it looks like the Oscars have noticed.
The movie is experiencing a ‘halo effect’ in Hollywood, receiving twelve nominations from Best Adapted Screenplay to Best Supporting Actor to Best Picture. Some audiences have called the film slow, but critics are enamored with its luring atmosphere and top-notch acting.
Keeping the Ambiguity of the West
Though projects like Wild Wild West (1999) and Cowboys & Aliens (2011) injected the Wild West with excitement, action, and a bit of comedy, the time period was lonely. Most frontier groups had to survive harsh climates and violent unrest—as well as long periods of solitude.
Power of the Dog succinctly hits on these notes. The drama surrounds a mother, son, and two brothers who attempt to bridge their lives. The action isn’t high-octane, but incremental; some characters are loud, others prefer to stick to the shadows.
Some might call the film simple—the story covers one man’s attempt to ruin his brother’s marriage by alienating his new wife and her son. But it also highlights how men (and women and children) were expected to behave in the period, contrasting this with the reality each character experiences. It’s highly nuanced, rather than outspoken.
Whether audiences prefer a long-haul, introspective take on the West remains up in the air—but critics, and long-time fans of the epoch, are certain to recognize the realistic ambiguity that’s been retained from the era.
A Potential Win for Best Supporting Actor Win
Another note that’s made Power of the Dog a top contender for multiple Oscars is the quality of acting. Senior talents in Kirsten Dunst and Benedict Cumberbatch don’t miss a beat, while Jesse Plemons also delivers an incredibly riveting performance.
However, many are focused on Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee. At age 25, he could potentially become the Oscar’s youngest Best Supporting Actor. Already, he’s been nominated for an Academy Award, BAFTA, and SAG Award for his performance as Peter Gordon in Power of the Dog, and has already nabbed a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor.
So far, Smit-Mcphee has been hailed for his reserved performance, which begs viewers to revisit the film again to take in all the details they missed the first time. Once again, the film’s success can be chalked up to whether audiences prefer a slower and more complex take on the Wild West. If that’s the case, Smit-McPhee’s character is likely to see him swipe multiple awards as the 2022 season unfolds.