The Power of the Dog – Wolves in sheep’s clothing
This year marked 28 years since the historical edition of the Cannes Film Festival where Jane Campion became the first woman in history to win its highest distinction, the Palme d’Or, for The Piano (and ex-aequo win, shared with Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine) – a feat which was only equalled this year by French director Julia Ducournau, with Titane. Which is also the year in which Campion (who has, meanwhile, directed modern classics such as In The Cut, 2003) released her first feature film in 12 years, which won her the Silver Lion for Best Director at the latest outing of the Venice Film Festival – The Power of the Dog, produced for Netflix. A move that not only ciments the streaming giant’s strategy of attracting the biggest names in American (and Anglo-Saxon) auteur cinema, such as Martin Scorsese or Noah Baumbach, but also its fruitful partnership with Venice, which has successfully spun the conflict between Netflix and Cannes in its favor.
An adaptation of Thomas Savage’s eponymous novel (which has recently been translated into Romanian at Corint Publishing, and whose title references the Psalms), the film is situated in the North of the United States, in the middle of the twenties – a western set in a dying world, just as the cinematic genre representing it is simultaneously taking root in the mental collective. The representative par excellence of this almost-extinct lifestyle is Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), this last specimen from the species of the harsh, hardened and sweaty cowboy, who nostalgically looks upon his youth as an apprentice to one Bronco Henry, and who now leads a farm together with his brother George (Jesse Plemons). The younger brother, in contrast, has a much more peaceful and kind personality, and has adopted a largely modern lifestyle – he dresses in suits, drives an automobile and enjoys occasionally organizing dinner parties.
A stopover during a cattle drive will decisively change their lives forever: George falls in love with innkeeper Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widow who is helped by her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee, in a remarkable performance, which attracted comparisons to the late Anthony Perkins), a timid and somewhat effeminate young man. He almost instantly turns into the butt of Phil’s cruel and machoistic jokes, and after he leaves to study medicine in the big town, the rancher’s gaze turns to Rose. Perceiving her as a threat to his relationship with George and thinking that she is but an opportunist that slid under his brother’s skin in order to milk their considerable fortune, Phil starts to subject her to a series of mind games that slowly crumble the woman’s psyche to bits.
One could call The Power of the Dog a slow burner: its plot, split into chapters (which allude to its status as an adaptation), often takes place at a sluggish rhythm, gradually accumulating tensions (and hints regarding the plot’s ultimate outcome) that are then released in a number of key-scenes. Yet many of these latter types of scenes come across as forced – such as the one in which Phil chicanes Rose, who is struggling to rehearse Kandinsky’s March on the piano, by impeccably rendering the same melody on his banjo – and excessively dramatic, striking as a contrast with the most minimalist performances of the four main actors (save for a few outbursts on part of Cumberbatch).
The little (and few) scenes of the film that don’t prepare for any sort of narrative terrain are much better, scenes in which the characters can be seen as they are: such as the one in which the newly-wed Rose and George stop on a roadside and start to rehearse dance steps. The latter moments are also amongst the few which are also interesting from a cinematic point of view: otherwise, the hyper-polished cinematography and story-boarding of the film are so smooth and functional that they come across as impersonal. I’m not saying that a sui-generis prerequisite of an auteur is to have one’s own distinctive visual signature (since, after all, how many countless canonical auteurs rewired their visual arsenal in pursuit of the day’s trends and technologies?), but the cinematography of The Power of The Dog almost seems to suggest that it could have been directed by basically anyone – and what more terrible symptom of Netflix & Amazon & Co.’s co-opting of important filmmakers could one even begin to imagine?
I must admit that I am somewhat struck by the almost-unanimous praise that the film has garnered in the international press – as I was watching it, I couldn’t cease to ask myself whether I was missing something, if watching it on a small screen detracted from its global experience, and so on. The stake of analyzing the depths of toxic masculinity and the ways that it leads to the oppression of women is not new in Campion’s cinema – what more desperate denunciations of it can one discover in the hall of the modern classics of American cinema than in The Piano? –, just as the thought of approaching a cinematic genre that has historically been male-led (and macho), such as the western. Still, if Kelly Reichardt managed to successfully re-write the rules of the genre in Meek’s Cutoff (2009) and First Cow (2020), and even in different ways within both films, Campion focuses to such a degree on the deconstruction of the archetypal cowboy that she loses view of other possible leads.
Point in case: the ferocious and eminently patriarchal masculinity of Phil starts to gain new nuances in the film’s latter half, in which it becomes obvious that his relationship with mentor Bronco Henry was more than platonic – a fact that, once discovered by Peter (in a scene where he finds a trove of fetishistic magazines with body-builders), determines the cowboy to adopt a new attitude towards the timid boy, one that is now positive and somewhat paternalistic. This is the place where several of the film’s ambiguities are born – is Peter a willing participant in this new configuration of his relationship with Phil, of a disciple to be initiated in the secrets of the rancher lifestyle, underpinned by sexual tensions, or is he cynically speculating it in order to save his mother (and himself)? Is Phil a victim of his times and circumstances who finds refuge in his macho bachelor lifestyle, or is he a less stereotypical gay villain that has more than two dimensions to himself? A small tinge of political incorrectness that could have been speculated in a very juicy and courageous direction, had its formal encasing not been so dull, and lacking even in the smallest of risks one could ever imagine.
“The Power of the Dog” has been available globally on Netflix since the beginning of December.
The Power of the Dog
Benedict Cumberbatch, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemmons
New Zealand / Australia