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Film Reviews

The Power of the Dog

Published December 3, 2021
Phil is eager to show the youngster the ropes..

Don’t go along to The Power of the Dog expecting gun fights at the O.K.Coral. The setting is the rugged wilds of Montana (even though the movie was shot in New Zealand!), the characters are kitted out in chaps and cowboy hats. There’s even a brief appearance by a handful of tame, demoralised Indians. Beyond these colourful props lies a dark, claustrophobic psychodrama. It’s Home on the Range by Ingmar Bergman.

When I saw this film at the cinema last week, there was hardly anybody in the theatre. One good reason is that Jane Campion made The Power of the Dog for Netflix, where it may now be accessed from the comfort of one’s loungeroom. Another reason is the uncompromising nature of the production. It’s a reserved, distant affair, where the camera seems unwilling to get too close to the actors. When it does, we feel the tension rise like a tremor on a seismograph.

Although the Burbank brothers’ ranch sits on a vast plain surrounded by spectacular mountains, we begin – and end – by looking at the landscape though a window in a darkened room. Campion is warning us not to expect a tale of outdoor adventure: this is going to be a fiercely interiorised story. Outside it’s all glare and sunlight, inside, nothing but gloom.

The year is 1925. By now the West has been won, but Montana still feels a long way from civilisation. Phil and George Burbank embody the contradictions of life on a remote property. In the middle of nowhere they live in a mansion with multiple rooms, a sweeping staircase, and the kind of dark wooden panelling that signifies wealth.

George – played by Jesse Plemons, who seems to specialise in stolid, silent, four-square characters – is stolid, silent and four-square. Phil, played by Benedict Cumberbatch with American accent and attitude, is the lively, talkative one. George is rarely seen in anything except a suit, but Phil has gone full cowpoke. He roams around the house in his heavy boots and tall hat, covered in honest grime. “I stink and I like it!” is his credo.

These two, ill-matched brothers have been living together for more than 20 years. They still share the same twin bedroom they slept in as boys.

This arrangement is rudely broken by George, who takes a fancy to the widow, Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) who runs a nearby restaurant and boarding house. In one of the early scenes, when the Burbanks and their entourage descend on Rose’s establishment for a slap-up dinner Phil makes a point of humiliating her tall, weedy son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who likes to make paper flowers.

This is embarrassing for George, who at this stage has not disclosed his romantic intentions to Phil, or to us. Rather than grapple with his brother’s disapproval he marries in secret and presents the union as a fait accompli. (Art echoes life, because Plemons and Dunst are a married couple). When Rose and Peter come to live at the ranch Phil doubles down on his spitefulness. He tells Rose she’s nothing but a “cheap schemer” and leads his crew in mocking Peter’s effeminacy.

It’s only half-way through the movie that we learn Phil was Phi Beta Kappa at Yale, with a degree in Classics. His crudeness, misogyny and homophobia can’t disguise his obvious intelligence. George, by contrast, is a nice guy, but a dumb ox.

Phil’s smouldering hatred undermines Rose’s nerve, and she hits the bottle hard. He takes every opportunity to make her feel inadequate, including a memorable scene in which he finds her laboriously plonking out Strauss’s Radetzky March on the piano. From upstairs he picks up the same tune on his banjo and plays her into the ground.

The momentum of the story abruptly changes when Phil stops taunting Peter and decides to take him under his wing. Gradually we begin to unravel the complexities of Phil’s personality. His nasty machismo is a cover for a tortured sexuality. His worship of his long-dead mentor, Bronco Henry, and the pleasure he takes in the company of the young ranch hands, are expressions of the forbidden desires that are eating him up.

He wants to be a friend and teacher to Peter, in the same way he was befriended by Bronco Henry. It’s less clear how Peter feels about this relationship. The boy may seem effeminate to the cowboys, but he has a shrewd, tough streak.

Phil sets out to make Peter a rope from strips of rawhide, symbolic of his urge to bind the two of them together. It’s his answer to Peter’s handmade flowers. The stumbling block is Rose, who is becoming an alcoholic shambles. Phil wants to separate Peter from his mother and take over as the guiding force in his life. One imagines him at Yale, learning about eros from the ancient Greeks.

The film left me wanting to read the novel by Thomas Savage on which the film is based. It comes across as a classic, existentialist western, in which life on the frontier drives characters to extremes of spiritual desolation.

The title derives from Psalms 22:20, in which it is written: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.” In the time of King David, the “dog” was a bitter enemy rather than man’s best friend. Phil plays the dog with Rose, but we might also see Peter’s growing power over Phil as dog-like. One complication is that we’ve grown accustomed to associating “dog” with “underdog”. Peter is the underdog in this story, but he keeps growing as a character while Phil’s tough shell starts to crack.

The Power of the Dog is a slow-building tragedy driven by a crisp, evocative score by Jonny Greenwood. Making few concessions to ‘entertainment’, it’s Jane Campion’s first feature in ten years and one of her best. Although the ending could hardly be more definitive there’s a side to this story that defies any easy resolution.

 

 

The Power of the Dog

Directed by Jane Campion

Written by Jane Campion after the novel by Thomas Savage

Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jesse Plemons, Geneviève Lemon, Thomasin McKenzie

UK/USA/Australia/Canada/NZ, rated M, 126 mins

 

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 4 December, 2021