Friday, April 19, 2024

‘The Power of the Dog’ Tries to Tame Wild Hearts

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The Power of the Dog is a revisionist western that seeks to repurpose many masculine tropes and fashion them with a different meaning. It uses the western as a tool to explore toxic masculinity, not a new thing I grant you. But in Jane Campion’s hands, the scalpel of the filmmaker is so expertly wielded that you sit there transfixed as she slices and dices the psyche’s of her characters.

Many of the props of rough and tough masculinity typically used in the genre are molded into tools for Campion’s exploration of repressed sexuality. But, more than that, she attempts to utilize the vast, untamed landscape to explore her character’s vast and unexplored psyches.

power of the dog
Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch)

Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemmons) have built a profitable ranch together. One of the things I found fascinating about The Power of the Dog is how the characters talk. How they talk to each other and how they talk changes depending on the person. Campion’s script, which she adapted from Thomas Savage’s book of the same name, understands the nuance of language. We change how we speak based on our familiarity with people.

The way Phil and George talk in shorthand. They use nicknames and phrases that belie a lifelong familiarity with one another, and Campion trusts us to follow along and catch up. The brother’s way of speaking to each other is short, blunt, and without too much care for feelings. Save for a scene in which George asks Phil to bathe before coming in for dinner. But that comes from George understanding how much Phil hates being told what to do.

The story of The Power of the Dog is relatively simple. George meets Rose (Kirsten Dunst), who runs the restaurant in town where the men take their cattle. Plemons and Dunst are married in real life, and their onscreen chemistry is a warm respite to the coldness of Phill’s demeanor. Phil and Rose are sensitive souls stuck in the harsh, unforgiving west. 

The only person who seems more ill-suited for the harsh landscape is Rose’s son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil and Peter do not get along, but no one gets along with Phil from what we’ve seen. Cumberbatch’s Phil is a charismatic, philosophical, anxious, terrified man. He outwardly terrorizes Peter because he sees so much of himself in the boy.

Cumberbatch’s Phil is a strong personality; his presence can be felt even when absent. But in contrast to Phil’s refusal to change and his jealousy towards Rose, for despite his gruff exterior, Phil does love his brother and is terrified of losing him, Rose’s presence can also be felt offscreen. The two tug personalities tug at each other across the vast endless mountainous landscapes, terrified of the other.

Caught in between all this are George and Peter. The press for The Power of the Dog will have you believe the film is about how Phil wages psychological warfare on Rose to break her and chase her from the farm, so life can return to what it once was. But that’s merely set dressing for Campion. The one commonality between all of the characters is how they continually misjudge the inner strength of the other person.

power of the dog
Rose (Kirsten Dunst)

Phil misjudges Rose; Rose misjudges Phil; they both underestimate Peter and George. Phil and Rose are the two ends of a spectrum, with Peter and George falling between them, trying to stay afloat. Ironic since Smit-McPhee’s Peter narrates the story, yet he spends much of the story absent until the last half. It’s as if he’s trying to make sense of this part of his life.

Over everything hangs the specter of Bronco Henry. Henry trained Phil and George, and as The Power of the Dog continues, we realize helped Phil understand his sexuality. Campion shows how living in the closet can warp and damage a person. Along with Peter, we begin to see that Phil is more than just a jealous man-child. He misses his lover and is deeply alone.

He sets himself apart because he fears the other men who look up to him as a symbol of macho bravado, a real cowboy, will mock and reject him the moment they learn of his yearnings. It is a secret that festers in him that will eventually be his undoing. Phil’s fate isn’t decided because he is gay or helps Peter understand his own queerness. It’s because Phil has so suppressed his true nature that his performative masculinity threatens the happiness of all around him.

Campion lays out all of this with precision and grace, along with her cinematographer Ari Wegner. The two women effortlessly build tension between Phil and Rose as they battle for the homefront, George, and eventually Peter. Wegner’s camera captures the New Zealand landscape, presented as Montana, alternating between letting the countryside overwhelm the characters and having the countryside being dwarfed by them throughout the film.

Close-ups to Phil’s hands as he strokes the saddle or tightens the rope make phallic imagery out of western symbols. Campion and Wegner are visually dissecting the western and laying bare the homoerotic symbolism and tension as a way to show how the grand ole men of the west feared intimacy and femininity. Granted, it should be noted this is a white lens Campion is looking through.

power of the dog
Phil (Cumberbatch) and Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee)

Like too many westerns, the area’s Indigenous people are either ignored or pushed to the background. Adam Beach has a non-speaking role as an Indigenous man wishing to trade for some of Phil’s cowhides. Maeson Stone Skuccedal plays his young son, and the two have a scene in which Rose strikes a crucial blow against Phil, but their presence is brief. They are mentioned a few times throughout the film. But once again, this is a western where the Indigenous people essentially take a back seat to the white people who have invaded and colonized their land.

Much will be written about Cumberbatch’s performance which is textured and sublime. Campion has a way of teasing out performances from her actors in a way, so few directors working today seem capable of doing. She understands that silence between characters can often speak more than the most loquacious monologue. 

But Dunst’s performance is so fragile that we can feel both Campion and Wegner’s camera cradling it in their arms as if fearing it might break. Rose is not a weak woman by any means. Like many of us, she is just a woman at the end of her rope. She is also fighting against the hardening of her heart and struggling to maintain her sensitive nature in the face of Phil. 

power of the dog
George (Jesse Plemons) and Rose (Dunst)

One scene between Rose and Phil where the two are at opposite ends of the house as she plays the piano and Phil plays the banjo encapsulates this battle perfectly. It is a tense and brutal exchange with no words and a series of close-ups and shots of doorways. The emotion may be subdued, but it is as raw as the prairie winds.

Campion is one of the few working directors who allows her actors to act. The way she permits more minor characters, like Mrs. Lewis (Genevieve Lemon) and Lola (Thomasin McKenzie), the ranch’s two housemaids, to exist on the sides of the frame in a way that we are given glimpses into their lives. She gives us little moments that show the story unfolding before us is only a sliver of a grander one going on just offscreen.

All of this is weaved together with Johnny Greenwood’s sublime score. Greenwood is one of the more fascinating composers working today, if only because his music blends in so well with the action but is never swallowed whole by the imagery. Instead, it is another color in Campion’s palate as she paints a masterful movie about finding love, losing love, vengeance, and family. 

Campion finds a way to surprise us in every scene. Whether it’s Rose teaching George to dance with the mountains towering over them in the background or the way Phil crushes a paper flower in such a way that it is both sensual and violent. The Power of the Dog is a riveting, bracing, and ultimately heartbreaking story.

Images courtesy of Netflix

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