November 2021

Arts & Letters

Ranch dressing: ‘The Power of the Dog’

By Shane Danielsen
Jane Campion’s new film takes to a 1920s Montana ranch for its story of repressed sexuality

It’s been 12 years since Jane Campion made a feature, an extraordinary furlough for one of the key filmmakers of the 1990s. That one – Bright Star, a study of the relationship between Keats and his muse Fanny Brawne – was one of her best. Thereafter she seemed to vanish, popping up only to co-direct two seasons of the TV drama Top of the Lake, the first of which was very good and the second of which was very bad.

Now she returns with The Power of the Dog (in cinemas and on Netflix), which earned her a best director award at the Venice International Film Festival in September. Based on a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage (not, alas, the 2005 Don Winslow thriller I thought when the project was first announced), it’s set in 1920s Montana, on a cattle ranch owned by two brothers, Phil and George Burbank, played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons, respectively. Phil is a capable horseman, handy with a knife, and perhaps a tad too clever for a life on the range. (Sure enough, we later discover that he studied Classics at Yale.) Bored and spiteful, he refuses to wash at the end of the day, preferring the well-earned stink of manly labour, and amuses himself by playing his banjo, belittling his softer, more insular brother, and testing his male farmhands for any perceived trace of weakness.

There’s a cruelty in Phil that comes from a deep well of self-loathing. (The guy punches a horse, for Christ’s sake.) He’s frightening because he’s frightened – of himself, and a closeted homosexuality that he recognises but dares not acknowledge. I don’t feel especially bad about spoiling this plot point, partly because the press blew it right after the film’s premiere (“Benedict Cumberbatch Reflects on Playing a Repressed Gay Character”, ran a headline in People), but mostly because your gaydar will be pinging from almost the first second he appears onscreen.

Phil is beholden to the memory of “Bronco Henry”, an older papi who took him under his wing and taught him how to ride a horse – and perhaps not only that. The dead man represents some kind of masculine ideal, an exemplar of strength and self-sufficiency, and Phil has responded by creating an almost entirely male space, an enclave that’s threatened when his brother meets and marries a local widow, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and brings her and her teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), to live at the Burbank house.

The presence of Rose is bad enough, and Phil is quick to respond – first with open contempt, and then, more insidiously, with a kind of extended psy-ops campaign, designed to push her towards the alcoholism to which he senses she’s susceptible. One particular scene, involving a repeated musical phrase, is little short of inspired – though its impact is diminished by the resumption, immediately afterwards, of Jonny Greenwood’s (surprisingly conventional) score.

But Peter is something else again: slender, graceful, androgynous. A sissy-boy. Though jeered by the cowhands as he walks by, he seems utterly unconcerned, and this blithe disregard for how he’s perceived strikes at the heart of Phil’s carefully tended self-image. To Rose’s consternation, he begins to get closer to the boy. To seduce him, or to harm him? It’s difficult, at first, to tell, and the push-and-pull of their relationship initially depends on much being left unsaid. But while this furtive sexuality provides the engine of the film, it’s by no means its raison d’être. The real surprise is still to come – and to the film’s credit, it’s a beauty.

I’ve always found Campion to be an oddly uneven director – clearly gifted, yet also prone to baffling lapses of judgement and taste. There’s a scene, early in The Portrait of a Lady (1996), where Isabel Archer fantasises about being ravished simultaneously by her three prospective suitors, and Campion stages it powerfully, via a succession of crowded close-ups, and Nicole Kidman moaning with pleasure as various hands and mouths roam all over her body. But then the vision ends, and instead of doing the obvious, elegant thing, and having these phantoms fade back into the shadows, she has them literally dissolve in front of our eyes like they’ve been beamed up to the starship Enterprise. Not only is the CGI lousy, the choice is a bad one, irreconcilable both with the scene it’s part of and the broader architecture of the film.

Likewise, in this one, she and cinematographer Ari Wegner compose long-shot landscape tableaux worthy of Andrew Wyeth or Frederic Edwin Church. One image – of a trail of cattle being herded over a ridge under low, dark clouds, the sky split by a horizontal layer of sunshine like a vein of quartz through basalt – is about as visually magnificent as motion-picture photography gets. But then, seemingly for dramatic effect, we also get aerial drone shots that feel like scenes from a tourism commercial. Come to spacious Montana! (Though the film was shot on New Zealand’s South Island.)

The drone shot, like those CGI dissolves in Portrait, is a thoroughly modern device. For it to work successfully in a period drama would require a particular aesthetic be established from the outset, one a good deal less traditional and stately than this particular film’s. It’s not about seeming anachronistic – deliberate anachronisms can be powerful, if used well. It’s about a consistency of tone in the service of a credible and fully realised world. This is a landlocked film, about men and women bound to the soil and its fortunes. The moment the camera leaves the ground, it becomes a different movie altogether.

Campion is nonetheless capable of moments of remarkable poetry. In one scene, Rose tries to teach George to dance, and the director frames the couple in a medium shot against a backdrop of distant mountains – an image straight out of a 1930s Austrian bergfilm. Only when George succumbs to embarrassment and walks away does she lower the camera once more to show the ground. The rhapsodic moment has passed. Back to reality.

The prospect of watching Jesse Plemons play against his real-life partner Kirsten Dunst – as they did so beautifully in season two of Noah Hawley’s series Fargo – was for me one of the main draws of this film. Alas, he’s barely accorded the dignity of a character. George’s courtship of Rose is sweet, if abbreviated, but their subsequent relationship never feels convincing or even especially real, a problem compounded by having him disappear for much of the second half of the film, for no discernible reason other than to ratchet up the tension between Rose and Phil and Peter. Worse, George is so passive, and his character so underwritten and thinly conceived, that it causes Plemons to fall back on certain traits we’ve seen him embody many times before: tongue-tied decency; a kind of clenched, brawny reticence. It’s a pedestrian performance from an excellent actor, because he’s never required to surprise the viewer or extend himself. There’s simply nothing for him to work with.

Dunst fares slightly better. Her Rose is a fragile, decent woman slightly out of her depth – never more so than when George, bursting with pride for his new missus, mistakes her ability to pick out a tune on the piano for some kind of musical virtuosity, buys her a baby grand, and encourages her to play for some ­dinner guests, a local grandee and his wife whom he’s hoping to impress. It’s an excruciating scene, well handled by Campion and beautifully acted by Dunst, who communicates every requisite shade of terror and ­mortification.

Ultimately, though, this story is a two-hander. As the relationship between Phil and Peter deepens, Rose, like George, is simply edged out of the narrative. Several reviewers have hailed Cumberbatch’s performance as a career best, a judgement that only confirms my suspicion that most critics, more comfortable with words on a page, don’t really understand acting and aren’t qualified to assess it. He’s loud and commanding, sure, but his accent never seems convincingly American; nor do you ever quite shake the sense that he’s been miscast. Even his rage is stagey and performative, with the result that his biggest scene – a third-act confrontation in a barn, all jerky camera and shouted exchanges – feels like it’s been spliced in from another, vastly inferior movie. That directorial inconsistency again.

Smit-McPhee, by contrast, is all nuance and misdirection, his reed-like physicality every bit as important to his performance as what he says. He was thrilling to watch in Slow West, and he’s nothing short of magnetic here – largely reactive, flattening his line-deliveries in order to focus attention on his gestures and his eyes, which convey a wary alertness and intelligence. “What kind of man would I be if I didn’t help my mother? If I didn’t save her?” he says, in voiceover, in the film’s first few moments. And the answer to that question – what kind of man, indeed – proves quietly shattering.

What Campion excels at – what she’s always excelled at – is conveying the tactile, fetishistic nature of sexual arousal. She typically accesses her characters’ inner lives via the physical objects they handle, and thus Bronco Henry’s old saddle – oiled and caressed, obsessively maintained – becomes a kind of erotic talisman for Phil, and a tacit warning for Peter. Likewise, a scene of Phil lying naked in the grass beside a river, trailing a piece of fabric slowly across his face. In these moments, the film both risks parody and becomes something greater than itself. Campion’s aim is to strike a balance those two sensations, the ecstatic and the absurd – because what is human sexuality, after all, if not both? It doesn’t always work: her focus sometimes wavers. But when it does, there’s lightning.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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