Of Gods and Men
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The Power of the Dog (Jane Campion, 2021)
The time is 1925, a cattle ranch in Montana owned by the two Burbank brothers. One of them, a black-clad Benedict Cumberbatch in chaps and spurs, walks into the burnished mahogany interior of a manor house, mounts the steps with a thunderous tread, and begins barking at the unseen brother. The man clearly has a problem, but what is it? Could it be a virulent case of toxic masculinity? Given it’s a Jane Campion film, this would be a safe guess. The swaggerer is Phil, cruelly taunting the sibling whom we find pink and fleshy in a bathtub. That would be George (Jesse Plemons), the gentle, genial one. What follows is not so much plot as the unfolding of subtext, a one-sided battle over the gender of the house. Will George turn it into a hospitable, civilized home (especially after his marriage to the widow played by Kirsten Dunst), or will Phil, who repels visitors by remaining proudly unbathed, maintain it as a bastion of masculinity, a sanctuary that pays tribute to past gods like surrogate father Bronco Henry through the horns and antlers that thrust from every wall? The catalyst for the hostilities that eventually simmer is Rose’s son, Peter, a pale, effeminate boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who, after his father’s recent suicide, wants to protect his mother. Peter’s unmanly delicacy becomes an affront to Phil: when the ranchers assemble for dinner at Rose’s inn, Peter’s paper flower decorations and servility as a waiter send Phil into a rage that cries out homosexual panic.
From the richly personal, idiosyncratic feminism of such movies as The Piano, Sweetie, and An Angel at My Table, Campion’s films of the past 20 years have taken on a more strident agenda. The mute and resolute Ada of The Piano was the stunning brainchild of a director with an instinctive feeling for the fierce and secretive personalities of self-willed females. We watch as girls become women before our eyes, clinging stubbornly to hidden strengths, never giving everything away. Campion’s eccentrics have taught us to see women aslant and accept them on their own, often mysterious terms. Fittingly, the films themselves are about watching, seeing, peering, often with obstructed or incomplete views. In the opening of The Piano, Holly Hunter’s mute Ada describes her condition through her “mind’s voice,” as she peers through cryptically wavering red fingers—in this case, those of a pianist who will first barter sex, one session for a key, to regain her lost instrument, and then lose one of those digits through the machinations of a jealous daughter who watches her with Harvey Keitel through a peephole. In Sweetie, two sisters look up at wildly swaying tree branches, sharing a frisson of fear before they pull apart. And in An Angel at My Table, the young Janet Frame, while traveling on a train, peers through the hands her guardian has placed over her face at a strangely deformed man at a station. Images become ghostly presences in these films, embedded in the imagination and determining one’s fate like supernatural beings.
This preoccupation with what some see and others don’t enters The Power of the Dog via a mountain range that takes on a meaningful shape—a devouring dog—to Phil and eventually Peter, while remaining opaque to the others. Yet this Western landscape feels less organic, more generic than the settings of Campion’s earlier films (and not just because it was actually shot in New Zealand). In those deeply rooted stories, characters and their conflicts seemed to grow out of the surroundings. Here, the West seems borrowed, literary. (The film is in fact adapted from a book of the same name by Thomas Savage, a writer of western novels with something of a cult reputation.) After early reviews were nothing short of rhapsodic, I hoped and expected to love the film, but to me it was a reminder that Campion hasn’t fared particularly well when borrowing from the work of others. Witness her uneven adaptation of Susanna Moore’s already problematic In the Cut or her less-feminist-than-James’s Portrait of a Lady. Rather than establish a mystique of its own, Campion’s new western seems to echo earlier films and filmmakers from John Ford to Sergio Leone. When we hear a man whistling, we expect a harmonica-playing Charles Bronson to appear on the horizon.
The film’s ominous, seething quality, sustained by Jonny Greenwood’s relentlessly menacing score, is almost comically portentous. Cumberbatch, a brilliant actor, comes close to becoming a caricature of menace. With his hip-jutting walk and a voice that sounds digitally altered—hollow, as if in an echo chamber—he stands apart as a kind of fearsome automaton. No lover of women, he’s not quite “one of the guys,” either: he seems no more at ease when carousing or riding with his fellow ranchers than in the more socially polished world George introduces. After wooing and marrying Rose, George brings her and Peter into their home. The air, already thick with antagonism, is made more so by George’s gifting of a fancy piano to Rose, which she plays repetitiously and rather badly. Meanwhile, Peter, who’s studying to be a doctor like his late father, methodically kills a rabbit in his bedroom to perform anatomy. He’s not quite the gentle boy of appearance.
The ensuing battle between Rose and Phil is pretty much over before it begins. Shy and laconic, George is too weak to provide any resistance against his brother. (Indeed, neither brother is big on speech, so we are stunned to learn that Phil was a brilliant student of classics at Yale.) Dunst, wan and undefined, has a thankless role as the pathetic Rose who slides from fear and anxiety into dipsomania, hiding bottles throughout the house. I was reminded of the wife she played to Viggo Mortensen in The Two Faces of January, a Patricia Highsmith adaptation in which Mortensen and Oscar Isaac generate all the electricity, while Dunst trails helplessly after the two men. Which in turn made me think of how Dog resembles Highsmith in the amoral attraction to evil and cruelty, often embodied in and made beautiful through male homoerotic relationships. Like the bond between Phil and Bronco Henry, as we come to understand it, these are rarely consummated physically, but are most often expressed through innuendo.
The film works best not so much as a realistic treatment of forbidden love, as in Brokeback Mountain, but as an Old West fable of stories never told and desires never acknowledged, of loners locked into hard-bitten roles. Yet as such, the film is perhaps almost too tactful for the current moment.
As to who will own the boy, it’s a Pyrrhic victory of sorts. In the guise of making him a man, Phil weans Peter from Rose, teaching him to ride and to make a rope, and serving as the mentor—and gradually something much more—that the revered Bronco Henry was for him. Peter learns, Rose fades, and there is a shadowy encounter in the barn, where the word “naked” dares speak its name. The shocking ending, when it comes, is so quiet and oblique as to seem like a passing murmur. Did that happen? The real money shot is Phil’s self-exposure while bathing (finally!) in a forest lake. Delectable enough, but even here The Piano wins the day. One of the most startlingly sensual scenes ever shot is not Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel making love, but the furtive glimpse of a naked Keitel wiping down the piano. The moment is part turn-on, part mystical—the transformation of an apparently crude man through the twin gods of art and eros. The Power of the Dog strikes a different, more pantheistic note, perhaps a nod to Grecian gods. With his sculpted, artfully shot body, Phil’s nudity is more of the self-communing kind—undressed and alone in the lake is the only way this strange man can feel comfortable.
Molly Haskell has written for many publications, including The Village Voice, The New York Times, Ms., Saturday Review, and Vogue. She is the author of Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films and From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies.