Wednesday, December 1, 2021

the power of the dog

In an era where the ideal of "strength" relentlessly persists within the confines of aggressiveness, muscularity and machismo, The Power of the Dog completely upends it in Jane Campion's quietly stirring revisionist western (based upon a novel by Thomas Savage). It's another vibrant, illuminating film in Campion's oeuvre; her fiercely intelligent period pieces such as An Angel at My TableBright Star, The Piano, and Portrait of a Lady, are always slightly askew from expectations and conventions. This tale set in dusty 1925 Montana feels much more bracing, fresh and subversive than many contemporary movies--and its all captured skillfully and unassumingly. 

Benedict Cumberbatch's vociferous rancher Phil is an aching mess of a character to behold--his hidden queerness gnawing him up inside and out. We watch the sensuality of him buffering a saddle of the departed Bronco Henry; and crawl through the trunks of trees to a clearing and a small lake where he luxuriates after slathering himself in mud--a place where him and Bronco Henry once shared. There are many heavy, literary metaphors like this in The Power of the Dog, but yet, not so heavy that they sink the movie. Instead, they enrich the picture--its tensions and mysteries building throughout. Phil is living in the same house as his brother George (Jesse Plemmons, in another finely-tuned character turn) and George's former innkeeper wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who visits when not in medical school. Phil and George are wealthy ranch owners: Phil lives a doggedly grubby cowboy existence while George, to Phil's disdain, dresses and lives in a conservatively posh manner. Their relationship feels tenuous from the beginning, when Phil refers to him (and inherently, his lifestyle) as "Fatso." Rose and Peter, who Phil contemptuously describes as "a suicide widow and her half-cooked son," are suddenly wound within Phil's taunts and broody, agitated loneliness. A competition of companionship almost emerges within all of these characters from the throes of Phil. When Rose haltingly plays the "Thunder and Lightning Waltz" by Johann Strauss Jr. on the grand piano George gifted her, Phil one-ups her upstairs in the stairwell with a virtuosic take of the tune on his banjo; later, he taunts her, hidden from view, from an open window, whistling its melody. Phil is all thunder and lightning indeed in this quartet. Cumberbatch's embodiment is so red-blooded and alive, the viewer can sense everything that's going to make him tick, as one readies for what he is going to inflict next upon the others. He bullies Peter at first (him and the fellow cowhands are brutal), but slowly Phil becomes flummoxed by him and closer to him--almost emulating Bronco Henry ("He taught me to use my eyes in ways that other people can't") and the dynamic between him and himself when he was Peter's age. Any attraction he may have to Peter is  impossibly buried. As Peter, the lanky, rail thin Smit-McPhee, gives a haunting portrayal--his serenity and intellect a vigorous match against Phil. Kirsten Dunst is eerily captivating as Rose, as we watch her downward spiral into alcoholism. Despite their modest lives, none of the characters of this tale ever seem comfortable with themselves, especially when someone so loveless is taking up all the air in this ever-chilly house. 

As expected of any Campion film, the crafts are top-notch. Jonny Greenwood's tremulous, rugged string score adds to the anxiety, as it did in his masterful work on Spencer this year.  I was taken by Ari Wegner's photography (who also shot this year's bold-looking Zola). Campion has always been a director with a sense of the rigorous physicality of nature, rather than just ornamental pretty shots. The streams of herded cattle, blood-flecked wheat, the dusk skies--clouds edged with faded sunlight--the plains and far off mountain ranges like a wounded, muscled back and the roaming harsh, hardened ridges of Phil's closed-up heart. ***1/2

-Jeffery Berg

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