Broken song, empty words I know
The Power of the Dog breaks down a butch charade
[The Oscar thing is on! I’m reviewing all the contenders; here are links to reviews of Don’t Look Up, Drive My Car, Licorice Pizza, West Side Story, Nightmare Alley, CODA, King Richard, and Belfast — hopefully I’ll get Dune done and then we’ll be set for the show March 27.]
Sometimes with a director who’s been around a while, I’m not sure whether they got better or I just caught up with how good they always were. I’m in that place with Jane Campion. I liked The Piano better than Sweetie and Holy Smoke better than The Piano, but despite that upward trend I didn’t follow up. I felt about Campion’s poeticism the way I still feel about Terrence Malick’s — it was well done, it was admirable, but not my thing. Some images stood out for me: Sweetie chewing on tiny glass animals, Holly Hunter’s metal finger clacking on the piano key, Kate Winslet suddenly naked on the dark lawn — but they never seemed to add up
If it was anything besides my youthful ignorance, it may have been the absence of a strong story. The Power of the Dog is, at its base, a simple story, and a character’s announcement, at the top of the film (“what kind of man would I be…”) in a voiceover that — I didn’t notice until the movie was over — vanishes and never returns, suggests the stakes of a dramatic struggle.
But the first obsessive, slightly dissonant thrum of Jonny Greenwood’s cello-played-like-a-guitar steers us away from thinking about it as such, and the opening scene of ranch life in 1925 Montana, lyricized by Ari Wegner’s photography, also sets us on a different kind of path. It wasn’t until the end that I realized The Power of the Dog is a kind of crime story.
It's also a Western, too, on its face — it even has a cattle drive, and what you might call two cowpokes competing for a woman, though in a weirder way than, say, Duel in the Sun (which is pretty weird itself).
Philip and George are brothers who’ve been working a cattle ranch set up by their absent father for 25 years. George is pudgy and dresses like the executive he is, but Phil dresses full cowboy, dives his ungloved hands into the hard work, won’t wash, and bullies George, though it’s such a reflex that George no longer reacts to it. Philip appears to deeply feel that George is insufficiently true to some cowboy ideal that was inculcated in them by one “Bronco Henry,” a tall-tale figure who taught them the way of the West — “Romulus and Remus and the wolf who raised them,” as Phil puts it. (In one of the movie’s jarring surprises, we learn that Phil studied classics at Yale and made Phi Beta Kappa.)
Rose runs a restaurant on the circuit, is the widow of a doctor who hanged himself five years earlier, and has a college-age son but no college-grade money. George is courtly to her in his clumsy but earnest way. We can see their growing together has more desperation than romance in it, and they get married without first notifying Phil — whose resentment of Rose, who must share the house with him, is a total and vicious campaign that quickly drives her to drink. Phil also resents Rose’s son Peter, a pale stalk, effeminate and studious, but eventually starts to ply him with folklore and riding lessons. There are all kinds of things to suspect here, and Rose, seemingly alone, sees them.
As I said, you might not see this kind of story coming at first, because Campion’s poetry has the effect of making the familiar, including familiar genres, unusual. That turns out to be great for the Western tropes, forcing us to look at them in new ways. Take the relationship between Philip and his men; in a regular Western, one or two of them would be made to stand out, as the right-hand man or the grizzled prospector or whatever, and we would get a sense of the ebb and flow of feelings among them. But Campion makes them well-lit functionaries of Philip — they do the work (except whatever job Phil picks to do, seemingly at random or out of personal need, like castrating bulls), they harass the unmanly son, they lounge photogenically naked at the swimming hole (can one really recline on a horse that way?), but Philip never treats one differently than any other.
This depersonalization underlines Phil’s isolation so much that it makes the cowboys seem like projections of his romance of the West rather than people — which makes sense; George is all Phil really has in the world, and the way he’s driven George into himself suggests that he may never know another human again. In this light, his pursuit of Peter takes on a dimension that’s at once more human and more ominous.
Some of Campion’s poetic effects I recognized from her other films — strategic nudity, for example; also the fetishization of objects: a handkerchief, a pair of gloves, some old physical culture magazines. But for me, anyway, they no longer stick out so much as ornament a movie that’s poetry all through but has the tensile strength of traditional drama — for me, the best of both worlds.
All four principals have their reasons and agency, including poor, harried Rose — when Philip calls her a schemer, he’s just exaggerating the truth. Kirsten Dunst conveys both the resignation and the sweetness in her companionate marriage, as well as her slide into almost feral despair. Jessie Plemons’ George is so inward and slow as to at times seem intellectually disabled, but he knows what power he does have; when (mild spoiler) Philip rages at George about something Rose has done to him, George faces him down, not with a show of force but with a weaponized version of his gormlessness, all the more effective because it contains neither irony not cruelty.
As Peter, Kodi Smit-McPhee does a historically accurate early 20th century sissy, untaught by popular culture to disguise his sensitivity and diffidence; among the cowboys he seems like an alien creature, But he is watchful and, it turns out, has skills and strategies and a keen awareness of he-men’s weak points. When I heard about this movie I had a hard time imagining Benedict Cumberbatch in it, but it turns out he makes perfect sense: A real cowboy type playing Phil probably wouldn’t be able to see or accept that the character has adopted an artifice that has taken him over like a zombie parasite. Cumberbatch acts like someone who’s spent 25 years playing at butchness — but his famously bright little eyes remind us of the child buried under it, and his erectness feels like that of a boy trying to be a man. His Phil can be absolutely hateful and still evoke sympathy on that account, which is the highest kind of acting.