Monday, March 7, 2022

The Power of the Dog: A Review



The Power of the Dog is beautifully shot. It is well acted. It has strong production elements and an excellent score. It is also a slog to sit through: self-consciously artsy that it becomes boring.

Montana ranchers Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his brother George (Jesse Plemons) dominate their corner of the cattle world. Phil is a bully: curt, dirty and demeaning to just about everyone (such as calling George "Fatso"). His cutting manner towards Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), effeminate son of hotel/restaurant proprietress Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) so upsets her she cries. George attempts to comfort her, and from that a whirlwind romance blossoms leading to marriage.

With a new sister-in-law and nephew now at their vast estate, Phil is even more irate. He taunts Rose by being able to play his instrument (the banjo) better than she can play hers (the piano). Phil, for all his bullying and bravado, has a deep secret: his idolizing of his late mentor Bronco Henry was more than hero worship. Never openly stated, the "physical culture" magazines Bronco Henry had that Phil hides in his secret garden are as open a declaration that Phil is homosexual.

His nude bathing while caressing if not performing autoerotic exercises to Bronco Henry's scarf apparently not being proof enough. Peter has come upon Phil's moments of ecstasy, and while he's angry Phil appears to now take Peter under his wing. Is he hoping to make a man out of Peter? Does he want to be Peter's Bronco Henry? What, for his part, is Peter's game? Things come to a climax when Rose, either out of spite or drunken insanity, sells the hides Phil refuses to. As Phil and Peter continue their dance, who will come out alive?

I might be more favorable towards The Power of the Dog if it were not so self-consciously artsy veering on pretentious. Of particular irritation is the film separating itself into chapters with Roman Numerals (IV chapters in total if memory serves correct). There is no reason to break up The Power of the Dog in this way, at least that I can see. This struck me rather as pompous, nakedly declaring "THIS IS ART!"

As a side note, it might not be surprising The Power of the Dog involves gay cowboys given the male nudity we are treated to, including a brief bit of Cumberbatch. I don't care one way or another, but I wonder whether Brokeback Mountain handled repressed gay cowboys with more humanity and less nudity.

Sometimes the artsy nature of The Power of the Dog slipped into parody. There was one point where Phil was caressing the horses so that I thought he was literally into bestiality. After Peter asks Phil if he and Bronco Henry were "naked" when Bronco Henry saved Phil's life by keeping him warm body-to-body, the film started into swelling music and shots of horses. I don't need the artsy gay erotica of Call Me By Your Name, but this "slender youth offering grizzled older man a cigarette as euphemism" is a bit too silly for me.

The film can and probably will try viewers' patience at its two-hour-running time. What would be Chapter I would be especially hard. One wonders why director/screenwriter Jane Campion (adapting the Thomas Savage novel) could not move things faster in bringing our four characters together. Twenty minutes into The Power of the Dog and I was still wondering when something was going to happen. 

Her directing of the performances does not help. Far too often, I felt as if the acting was deliberately false, too mannered and forced to be believable. I rarely if ever saw the characters as "real" people, but as "actors playing at great drama". Cumberbatch in particular had that issue. He struggled with his American accent and to my mind was trying a bit too hard in playing gruff, let alone gruff American. There was again, a mannered manner to his evil/self-loathing. To my mind, whatever message of toxic masculinity The Power of the Dog was trying for could have been better done if it were not so forced.

Plemons and Smit-McPhee were acceptable if again a bit mannered and stilted, but that was really the film as a whole. I will move more towards Smit-McPhee in that he did not disappear from the film for as long a stretch as Plemons did. Moreover, I sensed that Peter was not the innocent boy he might have looked as. Derided as a "Miss Nancy" (a euphemism for gay), I found him to be the real villain. 

Here is where some symbolism came to me. Phil dies from anthrax due to handling diseased animals which entered his bloodstream through a major gash in his hand. The film offers that the diseased carcass came from some hide that Peter had kept hidden, allowing Phil to finish the lasso he'd promised Peter. However, to my mind, it is Peter who is the "diseased animal" that metaphorically infected Phil. By manipulating this tormentor of his mother to give in to his carnal desires, Phil is poisoned metaphorically by Peter. Thus, Peter can get the best of all worlds: he can have sex with an attractive man and help kill his rival. Granted, that might not have been the intended interpretation but that is how I saw it.

I did think better of Dunst's Rose: a woman driven to drink by her own fears, at times almost paralyzed by them. 

As a side note, it is curious that The Power of the Dog made me think of another film where the arrival of a woman causing friction in a vast Western estate. The difference between this film and Giant though is that the female lead was made of stronger stuff, and that instead of Luz the sister we had Phil the brother.  

The Power of the Dog does have some positives. There is some beautiful cinematography and an excellent musical score, in turns of the time and contemporary. On the whole though, I think The Power of the Dog is a film that cineastes will adore: all full of symbolism and "deep meaning". However, I think most audiences will not flock to this film with such fervor and devotion, finding little to care about puppy power.

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