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  • Writer's pictureAlex Harper

Film of the Week: The Power of the Dog

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog (courtesy of Netflix)

What struck me most about The Power of the Dog, Jane Campion’s first film in twelve years and first directorial effort since her phenomenal series Top of the Lake wrapped in 2017, is just how clever it is. Clinical even, but that word has a lot of misogynistic baggage. Cold, callous, icy-veined. They all sound far too derogatory for what Campion puts across here. Because the implication, at least upon hearing the bones of the plot—a tale of toxic masculinity and psychological abuse on a Montana ranch in 1925, and those attempting to survive it—is that we should be expecting a fiery, emotional drama; threaded through the Western genre tapestry. Instead, Campion delivers a knotted thriller so deceptive you feel the hit long after she strikes.

The Power of the Dog relies on blind spots. Each of the carefully divided chapters provide some subtle action, a characters belief, a moment of sheer circumstance, that all coagulate like the scab on Phil’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) hand: the damage becomes apparent long after he can remember where and how the blow was delivered. It’s all in the writing, adapted and sensibly updated by Campion from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name. A series of setups and subversive payoffs subtly presented, carefully withheld, that feel as if someone had consumed the standard method for writing individual scenes—minor conflicts and minor resolutions—and recreated it, removed as simulacrum. You have to know the rules to know how to break them. Yet this is as if by understanding the rules so keenly and abstractly, following them to the letter but in her own specific way, Campion has created something radical. I’ve seen similar execution only once before (surprisingly, an episode of Fortitude, helmed by Simon Donald), and I never thought I’d bear witness again.

Two rancher brothers, the deliberate, hyper-masculine Phil and the softer spoken, sensitive George (Jesse Plemons) find their cloistered existence opened up to another family unit. George marries tavern owner and ‘suicide widow’ Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and brings her and her gentle, awkward son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to the brothers ranch. For Phil, Rose is a schemer, an intruder into his happy cohabitation. When alone at night, and hearing the newlyweds have sex, he crumples into boyish tears. In the open, he is actively hostile, waging a methodical and humiliating siege of torment on Rose; not until she’s broken, but shattered. In a memorable scene, the unconfident Rose hides inside, every door closed, and practices on the piano. Phil slinks in and duets with her from another room. He’s a mud caked savage, a man who has thrown away a history of artistry and delicacy for a performatively, deliberately rugged life, and as he plays the banjo to her tune and far better than she, he reminds her that everything he does is by choice. He is choosing to destroy her; and from there on, Rose’s spiral is scored by Jonny Greenwood with dissociative and atonal piano chords. Her opportunities to truly fight back are few and far between. But, it’s his relationship with Peter that forms the core of The Power of the Dog’s tale.

‘What kind of man would I be, if I didn’t help my mother? If I didn’t save her.’

The opening words of the film are easily forgotten, and best remembered. While Phil attacks his new sister-in-law with unrelenting focus, his interactions with Peter swing wildly. They meet over flowers: carved and handcrafted from paper by Peter, the aspiring doctor with his love of art, his lisp, his thoughtful and quiet disposition. Phil mocks him, setting a flower alight. Peter’s feminine traits are unconscionable to Phil, yet as the two view the barren mountains (gorgeously captured by Ari Wegner), Phil asks Peter what he sees. No hesitation: a dog, barking. Phil sees the same, because his late hero Bronco Henry taught him to. But it was not as clear to him then. Not immediately.

On the ranch, Peter demonstrates an ability to achieve much of what Phil can in the male arena (George acts as a removed intermediate). He can track, trap, and skin an animal without sacrificing his sense of grace or humility; taking these performatively masculine actions in the actual, while Phil operates under both actual and performative. (That both of their identities are entrenched within their sexuality, perceived or actual, adds conceptual weight; for even more evolved societies find manliness and heterosexuality synonymous). Campion isn’t as interested in creating a metaphor between these two different ways of living as a man, she prefers to simply present the reality of a generational shift. One ideal of masculinity supersedes the other, kinder than before. As Peter and Phil bond, and open more of themselves to the other, we may forget that Peter is not indebted to the world of men. Everything he does is for his mother, for the woman who made him who he is. And it always was. It’s curious, for a culture now highly aware of the benefit of authentic voices for authentic stories, that some of the most fascinating recent assessments of masculinity have come from women directors (Julia Ducournau’s Titane; Lynne Ramsey’sYou Were Never Really Here). My assumption is that the effectiveness lies in depicting both the effect of the toxic end of the spectrum of both perpetrator and victim, man and woman; and if the results are as incisive and effective as Campion’s, well, no one ought to complain.

I normally try and end these on some notes on the technical aspects, but I’ll keep this brief and a little bit different. The Power of the Dog has emerged as a deserving yet undemanding call for awards bodies (specifically, AMPAS—the Oscars) to correct some egregious errors of its recent history, with some of the films strongest areas in particular looking like front runners for recognition. First, Campion was snubbed for The Piano in a less hospitable time; what better person to reward the first back-to-back women for directing. Second, Wegner is likely to become the second woman cinematography nominee, a statistic that is horrific. When bigger budgets and wider provision of equipment are rarely afforded to women DoP’s, could Wegner be rewarded under that implicit fact over Greig Fraser, for example: a talent, but one budgeted and armed to the teeth to demonstrate it? Third, Dunst lost a nomination because of the sins of two men: Lars von Trier and Hitler. Poor form there, yet this nervy portrayal could net her an award deserved a decade ago. Fourth, the youngster rarely wins against a veteran anymore in the male categories, yet Smit-McPhee’s performance surely feels different. And finally, one “gay cowboy movie” was snubbed for best picture before to pretty damning reception. Would they dare do it again?

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