The 12-year period between Jane Campion’s last feature film, her 2009 masterpiece Shining star (a staggering achievement that in itself should have rained the skies and rained down money on the New Zealand-born, Australia-based and London-based writer-director) – and her latest, a heartbreaking adaptation of the eponymous novel by Thomas Savage in 1967, is one of the great parodies of contemporary cinema. Between these feature films, she co-wrote and co-directed two seasons of Top of the lake; Despite the myriad virtues of the limited TV series, it felt like a consolation prize for those of us who were in desperate need of more of Campion’s cinematic mastery.
But we finally got more. And fortunately, The power of the dog– among the best movies of the year, if not the best – was screened in theaters ahead of its Netflix premiere in December. I’m only mentioning this because it’s crucial that the film be seen on the big screen, in total darkness and surrounded by strangers, who all agreed that this brief period belongs to Campion, and we’re just humble witnesses of its alchemy. She hasn’t compromised anything by partnering with the streaming giant, having made a film that embraces the majesty of cinema and, more importantly, cinema, from its provocative cast to gripping cinematography (directed by Ari Wegner, whose recent credits include Zola, Lady Macbeth, and several episodes of The Girlfriend Experience) to Jonny Greenwood’s equally delicate and menacing score, all of which grow larger than life in the sacred halls of the moving image.
Tthe power of the dog
Real. Jane Campion, 126 min. Coming to Netflix 12/1, now playing on Music box theater, 3733 N. Southport, $ 11, and other select theaters.
Brothers Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons, respectively) were wealthy cattle ranchers in 1925 in Montana. At the start of the film, Phil celebrates with rage the quarter of a century they have spent working together on their massive ranch. Despite his rude demeanor and a predilection for calling his brother “Fatso,” Phil seems most invested in their unusually close relationship. George, on the other hand, emanates dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs, reluctant to dwell on the past like Phil does. When Phil regales their team with stories about Bronco Henry, the brothers’ former mentor, an almost mythical Western eidolon who comes to haunt history like a specter of desolation and repression, George can’t seem to remember those so-called happy days. . . Plemons’ low-key, almost jaded decorum is a perfect replica of Cumberbatch’s arrogant bluster, the tension in their relationship evident via the carefully constructed dynamic between the actors. The tension lingers like the menacing twangs from Greenwood’s soundtrack.
The brothers drive their cattle to a nearby town, where they and their team stay at an inn owned by Widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst), who operates it with her teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). George takes a liking to Rose, and Phil watches these developments unfold in dismay after harassing his son for serving the ranchers with a white sheet draped over his arm. Tall, gangly, and awkward, Peter is clearly targeted for characteristics suggesting sensitivity, weakness, and (though never explicitly articulated) homosexuality.
Smit-McPhee’s performance is a Campionesque rendering if there is one; this auspicious young actor embodies the idea of homosexuality, not in terms of the character’s undisclosed sexuality, but in a general state of being set apart, inherently at odds with the world around you. Peter is another figure in a pantheon of characters, including titular Sweetie from Campion’s first feature film (1989); Holly Hunter’s Ada The piano (1993); and Meg Ryan’s Frannie from the Terribly Underrated in the cut (2003) – which seem to be as enigmatic for Campion as they are for us.
George and Rose get married, and she and Peter move into the menacing big cowboy brothers’ house, set in a mountainous panorama (although it was filmed in New Zealand, Campion’s installation with the frame obscures everything. doubt surrounding geographic anachronism). Peter goes to school, while Rose struggles to adjust not only to her new home, but to her new lot in life. She is uncomfortable being served by household staff and being supposed to play the piano for the visiting governor (who, when he turns up, is played by Keith Carradine). Meanwhile, Phil wage a devious psychological war against Rose, retaining any kind of family affection and looming himself beside her, above her, in the dark country house. She is driven to drink by his malicious behavior, lying down in fits of despair.
Peter returns home and experiences the same dissonance as an object of continued contempt for Phil and the hands of the ranch. But he reacts differently from his mother and gains influence over Phil after stumbling upon his secret hiding place in the woods. It is almost reductive to discuss the discovery in question, magazines of half-naked men exercising, as well as a revelation only the public is aware of, a scene of Phil indulging himself with a seemingly beloved handkerchief and well worn (which he takes straight from his pants), embroidered with the initials “BH. Bronco Henry. Inferable but no less provocative development, the psychosexual always flirts with the nebulosity of being in Campion’s films.
This exhibition sets in motion a chain of events which, for lack of a more appropriate phrase, will keep viewers spellbound. These events have inspired critics to invoke phrases such as “revisionist Western” and “toxic masculinity” to describe The power of the dog; the qualifiers may apply to this often impenetrable masterpiece, but they seem inappropriate nonetheless. The film is more like a menagerie of oblique studies of characters, each of the adults leading an animal in its own cage. Despite all his salt-of-the-earth machismo, Phil actually has more in common with Peter than he suggests, having received a classical education and therefore apparently quite intelligent. Peter aspires to be a doctor like his late father, but, unlike Phil, he opts for the rigor of study to the vagaries of manual labor. The two may or may not share a certain innate quality that at the time and in this place was decidedly taboo.
As Rose, Dunst shows the subtle vulnerability that explains his superb talent and the underappreciation of it. The film ostensibly focuses on its male characters, but, as in Campion’s films, the central female figure comes across as an equally complicated figure, if not more. Smit-McPhee also balances confrontational postures, gracefully oscillating between a shy and set-up misfit and a doomed protector of the sanity of his remaining parents. It helps that Smit-McPhee’s unusual beauty complements this goal, though her striking physical presence never overwhelms the delicate undertone.
There’s a lot of noise about Cumberbatch’s performances, but I think he’s the weakest of the main four (Plemons is excellent as always, disappearing into the role as needed; his on-screen chemistry with his real-life partner Dunst is even more additive). Adhering to Campion’s typical demand for his performers’ method of action, Cumberbatch spent a lot of time in the American West and even learned how to castrate a bull, lending credibility to the most gruesome scene (but thankfully simulated) of the film. He does too much sometimes, but maybe it is intentional, he stands out from the other actors, which reinforces the effectiveness of their subtlety as well as his strangeness. Cumberbatch plays Phil aware that Phil is unaware of himself: that there are others who know, or at least suspect, who he really is.
The film’s title hints at an imperceptible form in the rugged Montana hillside landscape, a mystery obscured by the perilous terrain. Campion’s use of the frame here evokes those great masters John Ford and Anthony Mann. Shots of Phil and Peter in barn, backlit against clear blue sky and light green mountains, recall a famous Ford shot Researchers, while Campion’s use of the landscape as a psychological ubiquitous evokes Mann’s best westerns (The Furies, Bend of the river, The distant land). The score of a film is often seen in such complementary terms, and Greenwood’s pungent cue suggests a voyeuristic presence. This is the second soundtrack he composes this year, after that of Pablo Larraín Spencer. He quickly becomes the Philip Glass of his generation, his ominous accompaniments are an appropriate barometer of the impulses of the respective author.
The power of the dog is already being selected for the next awards season, with some nominations slated for Campion and key players. Normally, I don’t care how likely a director is to potentially win awards, but I can’t help but be excited about the prospect for Campion and his long-awaited masterpiece, not least because it could mean that ‘it is able to achieve even more functionalities. Pushed into making this film adaptation after reading Savage’s novel (a feat previously considered by none other than Paul Newman), she once again buried herself in that dark crevice amid the grim and the beauty, the darkness and light. The mystifying interiors of his finely drawn figures elegantly merge with the peculiarities of his aesthetic vision, but often with a disturbing effect. Hence comes another sublime ode to the intricacies of humanity, after which there will hopefully be more to come.