By now, the critical success of Jane Campion’s “The Power Of The Dog” dominates any discussion of 2021 awards. Before release, the buzz concerned whether Jane Campion would have a comeback, but that seems quaint now. It is clearly a masterpiece.
Adapted from a 1967 novel by Charles Savage, it steeps us in the genre of psychological labyrinths that recall the novels of Henry James and E. M. Forster, but sets it in the Montana cattle country of 1925.
Phil Burbank, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, and his brother George, played by Jesse Plemons, manage their successful cattle ranch as equal partners, but they could not be more different. Phil, the film’s tragic protagonist, is fiercely committed to the deportment and culture of the cowboy, and seems to exult in taunting his brother for his comfortable bourgeois lifestyle. Lean and rugged, Phil speaks in a quiet Western drawl, but his chosen words are usually meant to mock the listener. “Fatty” often starts his chats with his brother.
Though quiet for long stretches, he is pure chatterbox compared to George, who seems to deliberate painfully before saying a word. But George does find those words to woo Rose, played by Kirsten Dunst, a “suicide widow” who cooks at the local tavern, where her son, Peter, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, sometimes helps out as a waiter. But Peter’s real ambition is to pursue science like his physician father.
George’s successful pursuit of Rose to be his wife becomes the crux of the film’s narrative. For Phil, George’s marriage shakes his very foundation. His relationship with his brother had become so central to his identity as a “man’s man”, who both mocks George as a wimp, yet relies on him for crucial business decisions he would rather ignore. There was a shared filial bond between them, as shown by their sleeping in adjacent twin beds in the same room. The look of horror and fear on Phil’s face when George moves into a separate bedroom with his new wife, is an indelible image.
But now, we must consider that face. It is the dominating image of the entire film, since it is so often the only way we know what is happening at all. What Campion relies on from Benedict Cumberbatch, and succeeds in getting from him, is absolute transparency. We are meant to peer into Phil’s state of mind – and nothing but that – and it is thrilling to see. The fact that she has cast an actor who is so familiar to audiences from other, very different roles, had to be an awesome challenge. But she never held back. Cumberbatch is perfect, but as a fantasy aside, I can’t help imagining the great Robert Ryan in the role.
The story advances as a series of actions by the four main characters that are dependent upon their relationship with each other. For Phil, commitment to his identity as a cowboy, his ideal for pure masculinity, is absolute. He cultivates this self-image so persistently, that hearing he had been Phi Beta Kappa at Yale is a jaw-dropper. You could say that Yale “didn’t take”. We learn that he modeled himself on Bronco Henry, the older ranch hand who tutored young Phil in cowboy skills. Bronco Henry was also the object of Phil’s suppressed homosexuality.
Significantly, Phil’s suppression of his homosexuality is reinforced by Bronco Henry’s death in an accident some years before. Sexuality, of any kind, always makes it harder to idolize someone as a role model for your own life; it’s less of a problem when the idol is already dead.
Phil’s suppressed homosexuality is never alluded to in his feelings for his brother, but nothing directly refutes it either. But George’s success in creating a loving relationship with any other person, much less a woman, is enough for Phil to feel abandoned by him. It’s all we need to know about why Rose becomes a threat, and must be destroyed. Once Phil discovers Rose’s weakness for alcohol, it becomes the weapon he chooses to ruin the marriage.
Rose, however, is established for us in vivid, but very simple terms. Whether her obsessive love for Peter has an element of guilt for past failures, is never explored; that her life revolves around him is all we need to know. And once she knows that Phil sees her as his mortal enemy, we can see why his developing relationship with Peter terrifies her.
But the character of George is not as simple to establish. While seemingly quiet, and lacking in confidence, he also seems at peace with himself. When Phil mocks him for flunking out of Yale, he chooses not to respond. But it’s as if he has long accepted Phil’s derision as how his brother deals with his permanent and inscrutable misery; not to be taken seriously. The early scene at dinner with the ranch hands, when he shrugs off Phil’s rude question with “I don’t know what you’re talking about”, sets a perfect tone.
George denies himself nothing. He is comfortable with his success, and also with the fact that he wants more. His immediate attraction to Rose – after he sees her in tears when Peter is mocked by Phil – is consistent with this. She is weak and needs protection, and won’t reject his offer of it. His tender devotion is on display in all their scenes together. But, with subtle understatement, we also sense that her real value to George is that she is easily controlled, like the rest of his life. It is why Jesse Plemons’ performance is more impressive with each viewing.
Peter, however, is the most difficult to understand. His behavior is unpredictable, even opaque, yet the most fascinating. He creates artificial flowers that are stunningly lifelike, indicating a reverence for nature. And yet, he can also kill and dissect the same pet rabbit he gives to his mother as a gift, explaining, blankly, that it helps him to study science.
Kodi Smit-McPhee is chilling and brilliant in the role, even while the character stays a head-scratcher. Critics have noted his physical resemblance to the young Anthony Perkins, but this also reminds us of the Norman Bates angle. Peter’s opening narration says that a boy must protect his mother. Sound familiar?
Peter’s sexuality, or apparent lack of it, is brilliantly entwined into the main Phil-Rose conflict. One of the most powerful scenes – and Dunst is astonishing here! – has Peter standing before an inebriated Rose, seated, who blindly hopes to stave off any sexual impulse he may have for Phil by, perhaps unconsciously, offering her own body to her son. Peter can only say “You don’t have to do this,” but what exactly does he mean by “this“?
At this point, the story intensifies into a succession of seemingly unrelated scenes that, in retrospect, seem to prepare us for the shocking climax. Simply put, the story seems to morph into Peter’s devious plot to murder Phil. That this is precisely what happens is besides the point. We reject that view because it fails to satisfy what we’ve been led to expect for two reasons.
First, Campion shows us, in stark and shocking images, that Peter has gotten what he wanted. But, in dramatic terms, it is implausible and unsatisfying. We would have to accept that Peter intentionally designed, or at least anticipated, the series of events that resulted in his success. To accept that view, we must believe in the genius of a sheltered 20-year old student so advanced in aberrant human behavior as to manipulate the mental states of a deeply disturbed mind like Phil’s. And to be able to foresee, and be prepared to act on, suddenly presented opportunities – such as the bleeding gash on Phil’s hand – on a moment’s notice.
Secondly, it makes no sense for Campion to reduce the story to something so shallow and clinical when she has already demanded so much from the audience. After all, it’s not often that we see a film that pays so much attention to the way people speak to each other, and how the words spoken are meant to hide their real intentions. Or even where the speakers may not know their intentions. An extra chomp of popcorn could make you miss something.
What’s more, how many American westerns have we seen like that? How many two-hour westerns where the only act of violence is when one character – Phil – beats his horse with a rolled up paper? Or when we see what seem like dozens of mounted animal heads on the walls, but there is not a single gun ever shown in the film?
The more satisfying view is that Peter’s plot only succeeds because a kind of “perfect storm” of unforeseen events occur just when fate, or “fate”, creates the right conditions for them to interact. At least this view provides a classical Aristotilian catharsis. In modern culture, the gods of the ancient Greeks are replaced by an inchoate “fate” that serves the same dramatic purpose. Fate is the force that leads us to tragedy because, as flawed humans under the power of our own chaotic passions, we blindly create destructive relationships with others, who are themselves slaves to their passions. Peter awakened Phil’s long-suppressed need for love, and it sealed his doom. But Peter, fated to suffer in an impossible Oedipal relationship, was also pre-ordained to see Phil as his mother’s mortal enemy, who must be destroyed. This satisfies the elements of classical tragedy because Peter has no more power to control, or even to fully understand, his passions than the other characters.
In many ways, this is a simple, even familiar story, but Campion has so refined it to depend on pure cinema that the impact is intensified. The relationships of the four dominant characters are painstakingly developed, but, once fixed into the narrative, are set in motion with express speed. But always visually, with dialogue pared to a minimum. The editing, by Peter Sciberras, and cinematography, by Ari Wagner, manage to keep our focus on Phil’s expressions and body language, but usually when he shares the frame with another main character.
This is also in keeping with how Campion guides us in following the story. On one level, it is classic Greek tragedy, but at the same time it is a filmed western, and carries all the traditional themes, or memes, that we associate with the genre. But audiences won’t accept traditional genre films any more. What’s popular today is the Quentin Tarantino approach, which teases us by referencing the genre’s memes outright so as to set up elaborate and witty set pieces.
But Campion has no interest in that. Like Terence Malick in “Badlands” and other films, Campion relies on our memory of genre films like westerns – some classic, some not so much – to destabilize us, to shake us to reframe the story as an anti-genre work. She does this by removing the most frequent elements of the western, like gunplay and the one-dimensional villains killed by the hero. She gives us no hero at all.
But probably the most startlingly original element in the film is Jonny Greenwood’s music, which must be singled out. Dense and foreboding, it evokes no reminder of any film western I’ve ever seen. It is fierce and relentless, yet always complementary to the internal life of the characters, which is where the action takes place. Totally uncompromising, it is the best score I’ve heard since Mica Levi’s for “Under The Skin”.