Might of the Dog and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance comparisons explained

The power of the dog was one of the juggernauts of the awards season, garnering twelve Academy Award nominations and eventually taking home the Best Director award Jane Campion for her finely crafted western drama. The film’s genre itself was an interesting choice given that the western heyday had died out decades ago, but the story itself was also a compelling interplay of different characters and contexts. Stories and legends mingle to varying degrees, from references to Romulus and Remus to the recurring mythical tales of the great Bronco Henry. Despite the time that has passed since the glory days of the western The power of the dog examines material remarkably similar to another Golden Age western: The man who shot Liberty Valance.

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There are a lot of mixing ideas in the plot of both films, and more often than not, one of the most elaborate elements in both stories is the way two opposing ideas are brought together in the same space. Parallel but contrasting emotional connections weave a web through all of the characters The power of the dog: Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) has a frustrating relationship with his brother George (Jesse Plemons). George’s new marriage to Rose (Kirsten Dunst) causes friction and a mutual distrust between Rose and Phil. At one point, an unspoken battle takes the form of music, as Phil on the banjo drowns out Rose at the piano, voicing his disgust at her presence. In The man who shot Liberty Valancea similar series of emotional connections plays out: Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) and Ransom Stoddard (Jimmy Stewart) fight over opposing views on dealing with crime as both simultaneously vie for the affections of the same woman. Curiously, an oddly similar assertion of dominance also takes place in the latter film, as John Wayne’s character uses skillful shots from his pistol to pop cans of paint over Stoddard’s head to show how far Stoddard is over his head.



The-power-of-the-dog
Image via Netflix

Perhaps the clearest example of these opposing ideas and tendencies within The power of the dog can be seen in the two characters Phil and Peter (Kodi Smit McPhee). Peter is the young and academically motivated student with social ambitions; Representing the ranch, the farm, and the dirt, Phil embodies the rough lifestyle and begins to guide Peter in a similar direction. In The man who shot Liberty Valancethe same opposing tendency is at play in Stoddard and Doniphon: one an exponent of refined regularities, the other an inhabitant of the harsh reality of the wild frontier.

However, more directly in The power of the dog, this particular contrast of educated and uneducated and society with the country, is seen in the character of Phil himself. While he initially appears like a rugged rancher, it’s gradually revealed that he had a much more promising upbringing, eventually studying classics at Yale. The inevitable question then is: what happened? What has changed? Phil shows a rough public persona, but a very different and more sentimental one in private. He refuses to join polite society, claiming that he likes the dirt, but eventually, in one of the film’s final scenes, he descends the stairs to go into town in his Sunday clothes.


The man who shot Liberty Valance has a similar character as Doniphon is revealed to have abandoned his rougher ways in favor of a gentler way of life in his later years. It has been seen, on the one hand, as an allegorical tale of how East Coast urban civilization overtook the sparse and simpler existence of what was once the American frontier, but also as a claim that the former was only able to spread its cultural intricacies because of the ugly work done by them had to be, who had scratched out the border life in the first place.


Liberty Valance image
Image via Paramount Pictures

The film’s classic turning point hinges on exactly who shot Liberty Valance and who ultimately bears that responsibility. So clean too The power of the dog. The death that closes the latter film is more ambiguous, but still emphasizes a similar idea. The momentum between the two sides ultimately fails and one gives in to the other. Oddly enough, however, the side of the argument that comes out ‘victorious’ on both films can only do so by getting their hands dirty. There is no nice and easy way out of the situation. In the classic contrast of ideals between the chaotic semi-lawlessness of the border and the cultivated regularities of the city, the city ultimately triumphs. In both films, however, the representative of the elegant and aristocratic society has to mud his way into the dirt of the border and gets off dirty in the end.


In The power of the dog, Peter’s interactions with Phil grow stranger as the story draws to a close, while Phil’s own hidden private life comes closer to the surface in contrast to his rustic appearance. In The man who shot Liberty Valance, in contrast, Jimmy Stewart’s reserved and moderate character is pushed ever closer to the violent lawlessness he so vigorously opposes. The manner in which the conflict is resolved must in both cases be experienced by the viewer on screen to be fully effective, but oddly enough the elegant and educated representative of social progress triumphs in both films only because he was the tools to do so obtained through the overlooked labor of the uncouth westerner. Phil gives Peter (perhaps unwittingly) the tools to bring about his victory, and Tom Doniphon quietly gives Ransom the keys to political success. All that is required is living the life of a lie about the true story, but as flounce it says, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”



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Jake Nichol

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