Review: The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion’s new film The Power of the Dog is a luxuriant film that takes the slow road to building antagonism which results in an unnerving conclusion. Boasting an intense performance by Benedict Cumberbatch, the film chronicles the tensions between two brothers and the single mother who marries one of them. Set in 1925 Montana, this western (of sorts) has some very strong elements but ultimately disappoints viewers who wish for the satisfaction of Campion’s stronger dramas. It focuses on the men and the consequences of homosexual repression.
There is no way to discuss this movie without using spoilers, so be warned: spoilers abound.
The Power of the Dog, written and directed by Jane Campion, is either an extremely befuddling movie or an extremely simple one — I’m not sure which. It tells the story of Phil and George Burbank, two wealthy cattle ranchers in 1925 Montana who sort of act like they’re still living in the 1800s. George, played by Jesse Plemons, is a nice guy. Phil, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is not. When George decides to propose to widow Rose, played by Kirsten Dunst, and marries her, things get even more weird and tense. Phil is already ornery, wound tight and hostile in Jesse’s presence; he not-so-affectionately refers to him as ‘fatso’ for one thing, and constantly undermines and ridicules him in front of the other ranch hands for another. If Phil is unkind to his own soft-bodied brother, he is even worse to Rose’s teenage son, Peter, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee.
Peter is the proverbial puzzle wrapped up inside an enigma. When we meet him, he is fashioning articulated flowers out of folded paper. He gives them to his mother, who sets them on the tables of her restaurant. We later see Peter place them at the grave of his departed alcoholic doctor father. Later, when Phil and his company come to eat there after a long drive rustling cattle, Phil mocks the effeteness of Peter’s demeanour and makes Rose cry. Whether Peter is actually gay, simply sensitive, or definitely a sociopath is one of those questions you can take in whichever direction you’d please. The film doesn’t satisfactorily answer these questions, sometimes tricking you one way, sometimes tricking you in another, like the movie equivalent of a choose-your-own-adventure book where all the choices and ambiguities don’t really matter – they just end up in the same foreordained place.
The film is slow for, rougly, the first half. It luxuriates in sun-dappled Western vistas and the squinting landscapes of Cumberbatch’s constantly glowering face. The TIFF Lightbox, where I saw this movie, billed this new Campion venture as a revisionist western. But this is a misnomer – not very much happens for a long time except some slow, painful, pregnant antagonisms; there aren’t blazing guns so much as smouldering looks and by the time you realize that the film only has the sheen of a western, it is too late – well played, Lightbox!
The Lightbox is where I’d seen another Campion film for the very first time only a month ago: 1996’s The Portrait of a Lady starring a wonderfully pre-cosmetically enhanced Nicole Kidman. In that film, angst and rage fly in the face of the sedate stateliness of most period films. The uncomfortable close-ups and claustrophobic framing chart the transference of power in the personal relationships of Henry James’ characters so well, so singularly, that I wanted more of the same in The Power of the Dog. You get a little bit of that, but for a film written and directed by a signature feminist director, the strong female presences and characters are simply not there. Beyond getting you to go ‘huh! I wonder how old Kirsten Dunst actually is now?’, neither Rose, nor Dunst’s acting, really make an impact on the story. The only person of womanly strength we get any signals from is an imposing kitchen maid, and she only has a few lines.
This film is much more centred on men and toxic masculinity. When Phil, whom we see climbing through a secret entrance to a grotto where he can swim, slather mud over himself as he caresses his skin, look through homoerotic publications that he keeps sequestered away, and generally indulge in the memory of Bronco Henry – a legendary rancher that Phil speaks of often, reminiscing about their time together – it should come as no surprise that Phil’s character is at least partly the result of repressed homosexuality. Whether he was actually molested by Bronco Henry in his youth, whether a love affair actually flowered, whether Phil might actually be attracted to his brother George in some unfathomable, unconscious way and is thus incensed whenever he sees or hears George with Rose are all left in the frustrating ether.
Once Peter discovers Phil’s secret, that Jamesian shift in power happens. Phil tries to befriend Peter, we get the feeling that a seduction is immanent, and Peter uses this opportunity for his own ends. However, the novel that this film is based on is not a one from James. The source novel is by Thomas Savage, whom I admittedly know nothing about and have never read. Nevertheless, this was a novel published in 1967 and I can see the story’s content and themes being more apt for that time. Why would Campion, a powerful iconoclastic director, choose to make that story now in 2021 when the discussion around gender and homosexuality is much more nuanced and complex?
Reaction to this movie is centred around Cumberbatch’s performance. It is very strong, although we might be noticing intensity rather than definition at work here. It’s sort of an old school method performance in which Cumberbatch inhabits the role and dominates the screen and, for some people, his character’s temperamental unlikability could be seen as compelling. It seems unnecessary to me. I have never really understood the fascination for Cumberbatch; he seems like he’s always reaching to be Michael Fassbender and falling short. His performances rarely have much range. He rose to prominence playing an autistic savant in Sherlock, but isn’t that the perfect vehicle for an actor who requires attention but cannot muster up much range? I do like his more put-upon characters in films like The Imitation Game, August: Osage County and 12 Years A Slave. Unfortunately, his turn as the unlikable Phil veers away from those.
People — like my friend Val who watched the movie with me — have always remarked what a good looking man Cumberbatch supposedly is but I don’t see it. He does have fine features, occasionally sports delicate, curly hair, possesses abnormally high cheekbones, but the same could be said of a palomino horse. Val also enthusiastically informed me that People magazine had crowned Paul Rudd as the Sexiest Man Alive, so I guess I just don’t really understand Hollywood. The classiness of Cumberbatch, one so classy he tried to hide the fact that his ancestors owned two hundred and fifty slaves, is also somehow caught up in his name. For Americans, Benedict is sort of an odd name that evokes the historical traitor Benedict Arnold or a breakfast menu option involving eggs. Cumberbatch seems to me just a fancy way of saying a batch of cucumbers which is something one can buy routinely for a dollar or two on the sale table at the local farmer’s market. I have always been partial to Simon Pegg’s take on working with Cumberbatch (go to after the 3 minute mark if you just want to hear about Cumberbatch, although the entire interview is hilarious):
Seriously, this film will probably propel Cumberbatch into Oscar nomination territory again and that’s always a good thing for a movie. The cinematography is swell. Plemons isn’t bad either – after meek, sad-dog-eyed turns in The Master and The Irishman, he has fully assumed the mantle that John C. Reilly wore in the early part of his career and, like Reilly, might surprise us yet. Smit-McPhee’s performance is just plain creepy and vaguely unnerving, but that’s what’s expected of him. The film leaves you wanting more from the women, but you do get some of those intense, claustrophobic Campion close-ups for your time. All in all, you might as well see it.