Sunday, January 30, 2022

Exposure: Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog, currently streaming on Netflix.

Reading the rapturous reviews of The Power of the Dog is a bit like talking to an anti-vaxxer. The experience is so disorienting – the depiction of reality so inverted – that after a while you begin to question your own sanity. I forced myself to sit through the movie a second time, just to be sure I hadn’t missed something. I hadn’t. Jane Campion has made a pretentious, incoherent, excruciating adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name. Many audience members may feel similarly, I suspect, but raising questions can invite gaslighting from critics ready to anoint the film. Witness Slate editor Jeffrey Bloomer, a self-described Campion fan, who found the viewing experience “absolutely miserable.” In response to his heresy, the poor man is led by reviewer Dana Stevens through some kind of struggle session to get him to recant his view and assent to the picture’s inscrutable wisdom. Watching them try to decode the movie like an ancient rune is disturbing. It seems every year brings us an empty art house film that the chattering classes adore. But The Power of the Dog has to rank near the top for eliciting such an Orwellian campaign of misinformation. 

Like the book, the movie takes place in 1925 Montana, where the Burbank brothers – Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) – run a cattle ranch. While on a drive with a large herd, they and their cowhands stop in a tumbleweed town for dinner at an inn run by a widow named Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst). Phil, acerbic and brash, taunts Rose’s sensitive son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), when the youth waits on his table, setting fire to paper flowers that Peter’s placed as decorations. But George strikes up an acquaintance with Rose that leads to marriage, turbocharging Phil’s already pronounced temper. The film suggests homosocial feelings Phil harbors for his brother; when he hears George and Rose having sex in the adjoining bedroom back at the ranch, he boils over. He refuses to welcome her into the family, pointedly telling her he’s not her brother when she calls him one. He then subjects her to strange mistreatment, which include such devastating tactics as whistling and playing the banjo while she practices piano. Somehow this childish conduct overpowers Rose, instigating migraines and driving her to drink.

Meanwhile, when Peter shows up at the ranch from boarding school, Phil sets his sights on him, in several ways. He mocks the boy, shooing away a dog Peter’s petting and letting his horse out of the pen as the lad learns to ride, leading him to fall off. But Phil also has overt erotic desires for Peter, inviting him to ride into the hill country with him as a way of bonding. As Rose sinks deeper into a debilitating stupor, Peter comes to awareness of Phil’s mysterious effect on his mother. Yet before things escalate further, the cowboy winds up dead – killed by anthrax that Peter procures from a diseased cow and surreptitiously inserts into a wound on the rancher’s ha

Campion and cinematographer Ari Wegner create sublime images of the American landscape, with the director’s native New Zealand standing in for Montana. But it would be a mistake to call the film a Western: it doesn’t explore the conventions of the genre, even in a non-traditional manner. In fact, it doesn’t explore anything. Campion, who is credited as the screenwriter, fails to give it any narrative shape or movement. There’s barely a script and there are no scenes to speak of. Certainly none where characters pursue intentions and come into conflict with each other in trying to achieve them – the building blocks of drama. Instead, they speak in elliptical, inchoate language, talking past each other, that leaves you and them baffled. Major plot developments happen offscreen and are never justified through displays of basic motivation. The movie defies the laws of common sense left and right and is riddled with odd behavior. Scenes feel off-kilter and lack rhythm, the antics of the supporting characters (such as the cowhands) disconnected from the narrative flow. At one point, George welcomes his parents to the ranch, but they immediately fade from view, serving no dramatic purpose. And despite its title (from the Psalms) there’s little tethering the film to any biblical theme.

Because there’s barely a script, the actors have nothing to work with. As a result, they fall into terrible choices. Cumberbatch is being lauded for his performance, but it’s a bombastic piece of overacting – shocking given his great skills. Like legions, I became a fan with his take as Sherlock Holmes on the BBC. Lately, he’s staked his claim to being the leading British actor of his generation. He’s turned in one sterling performance after another, including The Courier from 2020 and last year’s wondrous The Electrical Life of Louis Wain. Both of those performances went unheralded. That’s a shame, but what’s doubly depressing is the praise he’s now garnering for portraying Phil Burbank. He chews the scenery in the manner of Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood, playing an attitude, not a character, and that attitude is basically anger. His presence is strong, but not interesting. With a character so two-dimensional, what choice do you have but to dislike him? Also, the big reveal in the picture – that Phil is a repressed homosexual – lacks any punch because you see it coming a mile away. Campion doesn’t go in for subtlety, yet critics are treating such obviousness as esoteric. Moreover, as an actor, you can’t play repression, just as you can’t play intoxication – you have to engage in dramatic actions that reveal the repression through the attempt to overcome it (the way Cumberbatch himself did as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game). Campion directs none of this; she never unpacks Phil’s psychology. Why is it, for example, that this man, an Ivy League graduate, became a cowboy? She just puts out a broad statement – he’s an asshole because he’s closeted – and leaves it at that. So you aren’t convinced by his bluster.

Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst in The Power of the Dog.

Meanwhile, Kirsten Dunst is reduced to a pitiful state. Apparently, we’re supposed to believe that this widow living a tough life out West is stricken by Phil’s petulant behavior. But the idea that this would create a crippling psychic power over her is absurd. People want this movie to be an examination of toxic masculinity, but it’s actually anti-feminist. Wouldn’t a strong, independent woman at least approach Phil and ask him why he’s being such a prick? Or get her husband, his brother, to do it? It’s 1925; women had made great advances in equality in recent years. I realize the setting is remote, male-dominated Montana, not flapper New York, but still. Instead, Rose disintegrates into a cowering drunk, somehow unaware that Phil is whistling the dread banjo tune from a bedroom window as she imbibes outside. In the realm of real human behavior, she’d look up, see him acting like a creep, and ask just what he thinks he’s doing. I cringed for Dunst in these moments. But when she’s made to stagger around wearing Indian gloves and then fall to the ground in an inexplicable heap, I felt truly embarrassed. Dunst is a lovely actress with many feathers in her cap, from her Amy in the 1993 Little Women to her Mary Jane Watson opposite Tobey Maguire in the Spider-Man trilogy to her subtle performance as Marie Antoinette. She claims in interviews that Campion left several scenes that developed the plot on the cutting-room floor, which I guess makes it a failure of editing rather than writing. Regardless, seeing her brought to this level is an outrage.

Likewise, Jesse Plemons, as George, is defeated by the material. Plemons came into his own on the TV show Friday Night Lights and has been strong in many supporting roles, such as in The Post. But here he looks utterly lost. He stammers his way through the part, giving halting, half-articulated line readings. He looks like a deer in the headlights, unsure of what he’s supposed to be playing at any moment, his face vacant and confused. It’s never clear why he and Rose wed – they’re stiff and painfully self-conscious around each other – and he disappears for long stretches of the movie without reason. Wouldn’t he intervene in the dispute between his wife and brother? And why would he ask her to play the piano publicly in the scene where the governor (portrayed in a three-minute cameo by Keith Carradine, exuding some humanity) shows up after she pleads for him not to make her do it? It ends up humiliating her and anyone can see she doesn’t play well. The dramatic point of this is lost on us and it makes no sense. Nor do George’s interactions with Phil. We’re meant to believe Phil is jealous of Rose for taking his brother from him. But that core conflict never gets fleshed out. You think the brothers are finally headed to a showdown, yet all George does is to ask Phil to take a bath. Phil’s juvenile response made me want to laugh, and I don’t think that’s what Campion was going for.

Finally, the son. Kodi Smit-McPhee isn’t bad in the part, but again he has little to go on, so he mumbles through his part. His scenes with Phil are shapeless and oblique; we don’t know what is happening (or rather, we can guess all too easily). What are they trying to get from each other and why? The psychodrama between them is at once blunt and cryptic. Phil treats the kid terribly one moment, then wants to befriend him the next. No justification is given for these shifts, except the bleeding obvious, which is that Phil is a predatory, self-hating gay man. In one bizarre scene, Peter discovers the rancher swimming in his secret watering hole and Phil chases him away, naked and cursing. In the very next one, the two strike up pleasantries as if nothing has happened. Apologists for Campion claim that the confusion is the point, that the audience is supposed to fill in the gaps and divine the film’s higher truth. If so, mission accomplished, but that makes for a dubious achievement. Complexity is not the same thing as unintelligibility.

Case in point: how does a greenhorn kid who doesn’t know how to ride a horse somehow, a scene or two later, guide the beast daringly into the hills and collect anthrax from a dead cow that he doesn’t even know is there? And predict that Phil would have a cut that he could infect? Yes, we see Peter dissecting a rabbit and examining medical books as he prepares for a career as a doctor. But there are a lot of mental and moral jumps from being curious about medicine to engaging in biological warfare. His lack of ambivalence about taking a man’s life is unsettling and implausible. Why doesn’t Peter try other things to deal with Phil, like speaking to his new stepfather? (And again, where is George?) The sequence is conveyed with grave mood and claustrophobic atmosphere. But as Pauline Kael once wrote of another director, Campion confuses solemnity with profundity. And incidentally, just what, in the end, does she mean to suggest? That a gay man is made so dangerous by his repressive society that the only thing to do is murder him? If you really believe this breathtaking statement, you have to go to dramatic lengths to show how it would come to that. Campion never builds the narrative steps, so the premise of the film comes off as preposterous.

Kodi Smit-McPhee (left) and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog.

On that note, can anyone understand the conflict over the dried hides that precipitates Rose’s collapse? Two Indians show up at the ranch and seek to trade for them, but are refused because Phil wants them burned, for murky reasons. Out of nowhere, Rose becomes frantic, chasing down the visitors and giving them the hides as some act of charity. When Phil returns from his sojourn with Peter, he flies into a rage, denouncing Rose for her action even though we never see how he learns that she did it. The sequence is blasted with holes. And again, why is everyone worked up about the damn hides? Campion throws the whole affair in sideways and without context, so we never understand its significance, symbolic or otherwise.

In her defense, some of these problems stem from the source material. In the novel, Savage minimizes Phil as a character, making him a type, and the narrative works in an asymmetrical manner. Much of the characterization is interior. But a filmmaker’s job is to reveal interiority through interpersonal situations; it’s been done countless times. Campion doesn’t. And having suffered through several of her pictures, I can tell you that her failures are not confined to this latest offering. Sweetie (1989), The Piano (1993), and even Bright Star (2009), her best movie, feature beautiful images but underwritten scripts, crude characters, and a lack of narrative dexterity. (Compare her to her peer, Gillian Armstrong of Australia, who creates vibrant visuals along with moving storytelling.) These films have an attenuated, off-putting feel, the people and emotions kept at arm’s length. And she displays a penchant for getting her actors into awkward, perplexing nude scenes. 

Some critics may cheer The Power of the Dog for its anti-heroic depiction of the cowboy, an American icon. But John Ford did that in 1956 with The Searchers, over sixty years ago. Ford’s film became a touchstone for directors in the ‘70s advocating for the auteur theory of filmmaking, which Kael opposed. As such, it serves as a fitting companion for a picture by Campion, heralded by the new auteur advocates. The Searchers suffers from the same fatal flaw as The Power of the Dog, one Kael pointed out. As with Phil Burbank, the macho savagery of John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards is never developed – it’s just there onscreen as a given. When a character has no arc – when he doesn’t change as he pursues his objective – the audience has no sense of being taken on a journey, internal or external. But at least Ethan is actually savage. Are we seriously supposed to receive Phil’s sullen demeanor as the brutality Campion asserts? What Kael said of The Searchers applies in spades to The Power of the Dog: you can read a lot into it, but it isn’t very enjoyable.

Other apologists applaud the director for trying to convey a narrative through mood rather than the standard accouterments of storytelling. That’s an admirable goal and can be done with great effect. But I have to say, she’s not an innovator here; think of Robert Altman’s 1971 McCabe and Mrs. Miller, an unconventional Western that operates by dizzying shades of feeling. The last haunting twenty minutes are told almost without dialogue. Yet unlike Campion, Altman renders his narrative with clarity at all times. Finally, liberal audiences may experience confirmation bias in the movie’s depiction of self-loathing homosexuality. I already suggested the troubling implication of Campion’s conceit. And once again, this is not a groundbreaking move. John Huston got at this theme with much greater depth decades ago, in 1967’s Reflections in a Golden Eye (based on the novel by Carson McCullers). There Marlon Brando (in one of his great, lesser-known performances) plays a closeted Army officer, and his desperate breakdown in a wood is at once frightening and breaks your heart. By contrast, when Campion has Phil engage in some light autoerotic caressing with a handkerchief, bare-chested in his glen, I really did laugh.

Campion’s not laughing, though – the movie is self-serious and in love with its aesthetics of contagion. And that makes for a bizarre viewing experience. The film is awful on an elemental level, but it telegraphs to you at all times how deep it is through its atonal music, glacial pace, and weighty tone. When a movie is doing this to you, you really have to fight to stay true to your instincts. But most critics, apparently, have just checked their minds at the door and given over to churning out propaganda for this ponderous affair. Dissent is crushed. I get it: Campion and her studio have made a prestige picture that announces to you at every moment that it’s a work of art. It’s tempting for critics to lap this stuff up and forfeit their responsibility to the audience. But they shouldn’t and they have no excuse. It’s hard to stop directors like Campion from offending all notions of drama, logic, and artistic taste. We should not, however, enable them. And God knows we shouldn’t reward them (the way the Golden Globes did). When the emperor has no clothes, there are always courtiers around telling you the opposite. It’s not true. Campion has left all her actors exposed – literally in the case of Cumberbatch – but it’s really she who is revealed by this film. And what you see is fraud.

– Nick Coccoma is a writer and culture critic. His newsletter, The Similitude, is available on Substack and you can follow him on Twitter @NickCoccoma His essays on movies, religion, and politics have been featured in Full-Stop MagazineNew Politicsand The Washington Examiner. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he studied theatre, philosophy, and theology at the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College. He lives in Boston, where he's worked as a teacher, hatter, and chaplain.

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