Gorgeous to a Fault

‘The Power of the Dog’
Kodi Smit-McPhee and Benedict Cumberbatch in ‘The Power of the Dog’ (Kirsty Griffin/Netflix)

In 1996, reviewing Jane Campion’s The Portrait of a Lady, critic David Ansen called it “the kind of failure only a very gifted filmmaker could make,” asserting that “like it or not, it haunts you.” To my mind, this describes almost all of Campion’s films—and none more so than her current work, The Power of the Dog, a film that beguiles and baffles in equal measure. 

Born in 1954 in New Zealand, Campion left home to attend art school in London, then got a graduate degree in visual arts at the University of Sydney. She has cited Frida Kahlo and Joseph Beuys as influences, and that does not surprise. No matter what Campion tries to do with a movie—no matter what story she tells, in what setting, in what genre—she is all about the atmosphere, a cinematic mood painter who creates images that imprint themselves indelibly on the mind’s eye. 

Her first full-length film, Sweetie (1989), studied a family “falling apart,” as the father ruefully notes, “like a wet paper bag.” A farce with undercurrents of tragedy and an edge of the absurd, the film is chaotic, presenting a mishmash of tones, dialogue that strings together non-sequiturs, uncertain storytelling, a shift of protagonist one-third of the way through, and a camera that fixates on random objects from disorienting angles. Its treatment of character reveals a lurking sense of futility, as if dialogue can only scratch the surface of something incommunicable at the heart of the human being. A sense of mystery contends with a frustration that afflicts character and viewer alike.

Roger Ebert was shrewd on Sweetie’s baffling quality, calling the film a “curious experience” and confessing that he “didn’t know what to make of it” at first. “There was something there,” he wrote. “I didn’t feel much from it, though; the experience seemed primarily cerebral.” 

Campion went about correcting that in An Angel at My Table (1990), a biopic of New Zealand writer Janet Frame. Embracing a more unified storytelling style, the director mined Frame’s autobiography to draw significant pathos from the story of the writer’s struggle with mental illness. Against the harsh backdrop of medical-institutional abuse overseen by males, including repeated applications of electroshock therapy, Campion developed themes of female power, female imagination and eroticism, and a Woolfean insistence on female space. 

“The Power of the Dog” beguiles and baffles in equal measure.

These preoccupations informed her masterpiece, The Piano (1993), the story of Ada McGrath, a mute woman sold into marriage by her father and shipped—along with her piano—to a jungle plantation in nineteenth-century New Zealand, where she is inserted into the dark struggles of two men, her new husband and his plantation manager. Showcasing the unforgettable image of men hauling a grand piano through the jungle, Campion depicted both women’s silencing and women’s power vis-a-vis the violence of men, even as it drilled down to the erotic energies surging beneath the surface of Victorian propriety. The film was Fitzcarraldo meets Heart of Darkness, turned to feminist purposes. Elective muteness; dismemberment and murder; a game of sexual thrall cued by black keys on a piano: if credible storytelling was sacrificed to trenchant metaphor, or even parable, viewers swept along by the poetic power of the film didn’t much care. The movie snagged three Oscars and remains broadly viewed as the greatest film ever made by a woman. “From a distance, The Piano seems too preposterous for words,” Anthony Lane wrote in the New Yorker—then noted that “as Ada knows all too well, words merely get in the way.” Describing the film as “inches away from caricature,” Lane commented that “a confident director can persuade you of anything,” and praised The Piano as “so rich in strangeness that the whole movie feels like a voyage.” Whatever its faults, he said, “you just want to look.”

 

You just want to look: the same holds true for The Power of the Dog, an early favorite among this year’s Oscar contenders. Set in the Rocky Mountains of a century ago (though actually filmed in New Zealand), the movie is nothing if not gorgeous. Already in Angel at My Table, Campion had begun to use landscape as presence and formative force—a use she perfected in The Piano, where the dense jungle setting amplified the sense of enclosure and steamy threat. 

The new film has a burnished look, both sumptuous and stark. Ari Wegner’s camera captures scenes of evocative beauty: a lonely prairie graveyard; a herd of cattle kicking up dust clouds; a train steaming across flatlands below massive snowy foothills. Add to that images of decaying wealth captured in a sepulchral, Miss Havisham–like mansion plunked down in the middle of the prairie, and such striking visuals as a woman climbing out of a Model T before a majestic mountain panorama to teach her husband to waltz. Such vivid tableaux—regardless of their dramatic uses—have a stirring life of their own, sometimes in a weirdly Sound of Music way. You keep expecting people to burst out singing. 

Or murdering. Against the backdrop of natural beauty, Campion orchestrates a parade of human cruelty. The story—taken from Thomas Savage’s eponymous 1967 novel—studies Phil and George Burbank, two wealthy brothers running their family’s Montana ranch. In this Cain-and-Abel setup, George (Jesse Plemons), who manages the business side of things, is ponderous and kind, while Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), who runs the ranch hands and leads the cattle drives, is lithe and loud, with a lambent streak of cruelty. Phil’s wounding sarcasm includes crass derogations of his brother, whom he contemptuously calls “Fatso,” and intensifies when George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a recently widowed innkeeper, and moves her and her teenage son, Peter, into the brothers’ mansion. 

While Phil’s hostility ostensibly reflects suspicion about Rose’s designs on the family wealth (“You’re just a cheap schemer!” he accuses her), his invective seems to emanate from a deep well of what we would call toxic masculinity, an acrid mixture of misogyny and homophobia. Seizing on the effeminacy of Peter, he incites mockery of the boy among the ranch hands, ridiculing him as “Miss Nancy” and at one point taking a decorative paper flower Peter has made for a dinner party and lighting it on fire. To sharpen the shaming, Phil invokes the legendary figure of Bronco Henry, a long-dead cowboy who taught the Burbank brothers horsemanship—and set them up with prostitutes—and whom Phil worships as the embodiment of manliness. Campion depicts Phil as a slow-burning fuse, capable of igniting male violence at any time—for instance, in the crowded dining room of Rose’s inn, where cowboy carousing fueled by alcohol sets Rose on edge, requiring George to defuse things as Phil glowers. 

Despite its epic Western setting, The Power of the Dog is more parlor than prairie, a Tennessee Williams–like chamber drama that draws its carefully calibrated interactions into a tight knot, creating a No Exit level of interpersonal tension. Here “hell is other people” reflects not the arrival of some notorious outlaw galloping in at high noon, but rather the lacerating gibes of one’s brother or brother-in-law. In one memorable sequence, Phil mocks Rose’s halting attempts to play a piano melody by forcibly accompanying her on the banjo, using his vastly superior skill to humiliate her. Credit Campion with successfully portraying a musical duet that plays like an act of sexual violence.  

The roles in this complex of types are superbly acted all around. As Phil, Cumberbatch oozes insolent menace, and can make the act of licking a just-rolled cigarette drip with insinuation. Jesse Plemons’s George is the inverse, a stolid, lumbering combination of pity and humility. Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) exudes frail vulnerability, yet his latent intelligence and habitual secrecy promise surprises. Dunst’s Rose is fretful and weak, afflicted with shuddering abhorrence at Phil and increasingly beating a shamed retreat into alcohol.

Campion exploits these archetypal contrasts via studied juxtapositions. We see George, in his bowtie and bowler hat, driving by in a newfangled automobile as Phil, in chaps and Stetson, skins an animal. Or Peter trying on tennis clothes in a store with his mother—as Phil castrates a bull. Familiar dichotomies of nineteenth-century frontier America are emblemized in the Pete/George/Rose vs. Phil antagonism: on the one hand, beauty, art, cities, gardens, sneakers, manners, femininity, cars, pianos, tennis, the drawing room; and on the other, horses, boots, dirt, knives, rowdy violence, blood, wilderness, erotic power, the saloon.  

Here “hell is other people” reflects not the arrival of some notorious outlaw galloping in at high noon, but rather the lacerating gibes of one’s brother or brother-in-law.

From this well-trodden mythic path Campion diverges, complicating the calculus by inverting the expected male-female polarities. To our shock, Phil turns out to be highly educated, a Yale Phi Beta Kappa classicist, as well as a noted conversationalist and talented musician. However contemptuous of civilization, he—and not Rose—is its avatar. And so for the second time in a Campion movie we see a piano carted into the wilderness by rough men. In this case, however, it will not be a talented woman who represents the creative civilizing force that can bring music to the savages, but one of those selfsame rough men—indeed, their hero.

That’s only the beginning of the surprises Campion has in store. Mutual antipathy notwithstanding, Phil and Pete turn out to share a good deal. Both are naturalists, in their different ways, and both are unsentimental about killing animals—Phil as a hunter, Peter as a medical student who kills rabbits in order to dissect them. Further similarities allow Campion to subvert her film’s take on male violence and tenderness. When George makes love to Rose, Phil, hearing their ardor from the next room, flees to the barn and a saddle shrine to Bronco Henry, which he caresses with conspicuous tenderness. Later, repairing to a hidden swimming hole, he slips into dreamy reverie while caressing himself with a gauzy yellow scarf embroidered with the initials “BH.”

 

These sudden reversals and unexpected affinities, and the way they complicate our expectations, make Campion’s film interesting to think about (or write about). A film is not a set of ideas, however, but something you watch; first and foremost, it is an experience. And as an experience I find The Power of the Dog confusing and, in some respects, disappointing. 

Anticlimax and bafflement beset its last forty minutes, as built-up energies leak out through desultory confrontations, and the four protagonists get pushed in confusing directions. For George that direction is offscreen; he mostly disappears. With Phil, the confusion lies in the all-but-instantaneous transformation of his implacable cruelty into tenderness. How is this flip-flop effected? Where does it come from and what does it mean? When Peter catches Phil in his erotic reverie about Bronco Henry, the latter’s rage (“Come here, you little bitch!”) feels lethal. So when in the next scene he waxes friendly—“Peter, we kind of got off on the wrong foot”— we suspect a trap. And when he subsequently invites Peter out on a trail ride, we wonder, is he going to rape him? Kill him? 

The film’s denouement includes strange, displaced dramatic cruxes, like George suggesting that Phil get “a washup” before a dinner party, or Rose panicking and being unable to perform at the piano during that party. Do these events merit the centrality Campion gives them? Rose’s meandering memories of childhood occupy what seems like excessive space, as does an incident involving animal skins and Native American traders, when she drunkenly stumbles out to offer the hides to the traders, contravening Phil’s wishes. Why is Phil so intent on burning the hides in the first place? Why does Rose so desperately want to give them away? And why does Phil dress up in city clothes at the end? 

Portentous camera angles and music cue up payoff moments whose meanings prove stubbornly elusive. In the barn, with the soundtrack thumping away at full urgency, Phil rants at Peter about Rose’s perfidious gift of the hides. “She’s a drunk!” he screams, his eyes tearing up with vehemence. In another culminating scene, Phil and Peter share a notably intimate cigarette—to ominous music seemingly piped in from a serial-killer drama. Jonny Greenwood’s hectoring score pumps tense foreboding into the movie from the get-go, and by the end I felt pushed around. Drama segues into melodrama, with Peter, Phil, and Rose giving trenchant looks as sinister music plays. But sinister about what? Closeups of a rope Phil is braiding receive more sinister music. Why? Is he going to hang himself with it? Tie Peter up? 

Such enigmatic exchanges and textural disjunctions can make the film seem willfully obscure. (Google it, and one of the first prompts you get is “Power of the Dog explained.”) Writing about The Piano, Anthony Lane commented that “the movie flatters viewers by inviting them to read it—to pick up all the signs and symbols and arrange them into an elaborate pattern.” I guess I’d like to be a little less flattered by Campion. Confusion is not ambiguity, and a movie where anything seems possible is one where a viewer is reduced to guesswork. The Power of the Dog leaves us guessing about way too much. What exactly is the power of the dog, by the way? Phil alludes to Bronco Henry’s habit of discerning a canine face in the hills, and as metaphor the phrase also surely refers to the theme of male strength and violence. But how? A scriptural quotation jammed into the film’s final moments only makes things murkier. Nor does it help that Campion ties up narrative loose ends with a plot twist of the type that has a viewer—this viewer, anyway—shouting “No!” 

To be sure, there is plenty of “Yes” to shout about in The Power of the Dog. Its dark characterological energies make for a terrific setup; the first hour of this film held me rapt with anticipation. And then there’s its opulent, almost humbling beauty, the hallmark of a filmmaker who remains a painter at heart. Such beauty is part and parcel of Campion’s metaphysical bent, the steady bead on the ineffable that lends her films their aura of mystery. “There is a light that has to dawn,” Isabel Archer muses in Portrait of a Lady, trying to articulate her fervent wish to discover life. “I can’t explain it, but I know it’s there.” 

A painterly reach for the sublime is the foundational action of The Power of the Dog. In trying to understand my response to this intense, majestic, and confounding film, I found myself recalling In the Cut, Campion’s widely derided 2003 Manhattan serial-killer mystery, a film set in the tradition of such propulsive thrillers as Basic Instinct and Jagged Edge. In fact, there is little that is propulsive in Campion, and much that is seductive. In the Cut is all lurid reds and shadows, with images of turbulent ominous beauty, as when a sudden wind kicks up a storm of leaves outside Meg Ryan’s window. Can swirling leaves be ominous? Drenched in malevolence, the movie borders on self-parody; it illustrates how atmosphere can become a form of sentimentality, claiming more than it deserves and leaving a film in an awkward predicament: all dressed up with nowhere to go. 

Published in the February 2022 issue: 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal. His fiction has appeared in Harper’s, GQ, Esquire, the Atlantic, and many other magazines, as well as in Best American Short Stories. His novel, The Last to Go, was produced for television by ABC, and he has been a writer-in-residence at Amherst and Emerson colleges. 

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