Sat. Jul 13th, 2024

Shifting Focus

After a hiatus of more than a decade, the resurgence of director Jane Campion with The Power of the Dog marks a significant shift in her thematic focus. She positions a male character as the narrative focal point for the first time in her career. The decision Campion’s previous filmography is in stark contrast to, which includes seven feature films and two television miniseries. Women have always occupied the central roles in the works, and most importantly, the narratives have unfolded entirely from their subjective perspectives.

The Power of the Dog opens with a provocative question, delivered in a disembodied voiceover that creates a sense of mystery from the outset. The speaker is unknown and does not appear visually during the first few minutes, posing a question that looms over the entire narrative: “When my father died, all I wanted was my mother’s happiness. What kind of man would I be if I didn’t protect my mother? If I didn’t save her?” The initial question becomes the dramatic core, setting the film’s tension and foreshadowing its tragic resolution. However, its significance extends beyond a specific familial situation and filial affection.

Campion’s evocative use of voiceover transcends the immediate context and invites comparisons with archetypal narratives. Works such as The Godfather, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Killing of a Sacred Deer grapple with how themes like power, violence, emotion, and social expectations shape masculinity. Through the intertextual lens, the film broadens its scope, posing fundamental existential questions about the definition of manhood. The central issue is: how does one achieve validation and construct one’s masculinity in the eyes of oneself and others?

Furthermore, the film challenges the traditional binary between masculinity and femininity. Campion argues that attempts to categorize the concepts rigidly are ultimately flawed. The personal experiences of the characters reveal the inherent limitations of the binary. The film raises the possibility that true masculinity cannot be defined solely by outward displays of toughness or dominance and that a more nuanced understanding is required.

The film offers a faithful adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel and avoids excessive embellishments. The narrative unfolds against the backdrop of Montana in 1925, a transitional period between the cataclysmic events of the Great War and the impending economic devastation of the Great Depression. Ranching still promises prosperity, and the Burbank brothers—Phil and his quieter sibling George—preside over their parents’ vast legacy.

After opting for a more metropolitan life in Salt Lake City, the elder Burbanks left behind the physical manifestation of their Eastern roots. The expansive house, perpetually shrouded in shadow, which sheltered the brothers during their formative years, seems transplanted from the Atlantic coast. The only concession to the Western landscape is the deer, wolf, and bear trophies adorning the dark wooden walls. Although now in their forties, Phil and George continue to share the twin beds of their childhood. While Phil undeniably holds the power in their relationship, his constant belittling of George with the nickname “Fatso” hints at an underlying emotional dependence. George’s expertise lies in meticulously managing the ranch’s finances, while Phil embodies the archetype of the rugged cowboy, relentlessly overseeing the hired hands. He surpasses their efforts in every physical task, demonstrating mastery in braiding rawhide, roping cattle, and castrating calves with trained efficiency. The image of Phil holding a blood-stained knife between his teeth as he completes the castration with both hands vividly recalls the teachings of Bronco Henry, an ideal cowboy who died two decades earlier. Phil’s prolonged mourning suggests a profound emotional connection, implying that Bronco Henry meant more to him than mere mentorship.

Archetypal Connections

The Power of the Dog employs a meticulously crafted opening sequence to establish the thematic and stylistic foundation of the film. Following the enigmatic voiceover narration, brief yet powerful scenes unfold. The initial close-up image of livestock kicking up dust is a microcosm of the film’s central conflict: the wild and primal urges simmering beneath the surface of an ostensibly civilized world. Subsequent images of two men on horseback wrestling with cattle reinforce the motif of humanity’s struggle to control and dominate nature.

The camera then focuses on two bulls locking horns, symbolizing aggressive masculinity and relentless efforts at domination. The image seamlessly transitions into a significant camera movement—a lateral tracking shot from within a darkened house. The slow and deliberate shift across three large windows “frames and reframes” the figure later revealed to be Phil, the film’s complex antihero. The shot accomplishes several things. Firstly, by compressing the exterior space, the lens creates a sense of claustrophobia, indicating that Phil feels confined by his environment, both physically and emotionally. It also emphasizes the imposing presence of the mountains, suggesting a constant awareness of nature’s power and potential violence. The image is not composed from Phil’s perspective but “integrates the interior and exterior.” The technique suggests a character who internalizes his surroundings, possibly viewing his domain as an extension of himself. His “striding” across the yard indicates a desire to impose order on the chaos around him. It reflects the struggle between the livestock and potentially signals his internal struggle with forbidden desires.

Jonny Greenwood’s minimalist music further heightens the audience’s apprehension, beginning in tandem with the voiceover. The absence of melody and the use of a repetitive bass line played dissonantly on the cello create a sense of unease and foreboding. The musical motif, later echoed by “repeating dissonant melodic figures,” a recurring element, reinforces the film’s thematic consistency.

Upon entering the lodge, Phil attempts to initiate a dialogue with his brother about the importance of the upcoming annual cattle drive, a tradition they have undertaken together for a quarter of a century. However, George, weary of Phil’s combative demeanor, retreats further into emotional isolation. As the next day arrives and they find themselves positioned side by side, the chasm separating them widens.

The film unveils the terrain: a majestic panorama encompassing towering peaks, gentle foothills, and expansive grasslands intersected by a ribbon of iron—the railway track. The wide-angle perspective showcases the winding track replicated six times throughout the film, its breadth appearing no broader than the rawhide strap destined to play a crucial, ultimately fatal, role in the narrative.

Campion employs startling juxtapositions to propel her narrative forward. The director’s trademark shatters the tranquility of the ranch—sudden scene cuts. We are thrust into a starkly contrasting world: the domestic realm. Here, we meet Peter Gordon, a slender teenager, meticulously crafting delicate paper flowers. A close-up shot of his scissors emphasizes the precision of his movements, further highlighting his introverted nature. Soft, diffused lighting contributes to the scene’s intimacy, showcasing the tenderness between Peter and Rose Gordon. Rose, a woman yearning for connection, overly praises his artistic efforts, revealing a deep maternal bond and unwavering support.

Deconstructing Masculinity

Campion expertly portrays the socio-economic reality within the setting. Rose, out of necessity, has transformed their residence into the town’s sole restaurant. The action provides for them financially and signifies her resilience and cunning. The hands of the ranch, characterized as rough and uncouth, emerge after cattle herding and evening pampering. Their presence underscores the masculine and rugged culture that dominates the ranch.

The arrival of the ranch owners becomes the catalyst for Phil’s simmering hatred. His animosity towards George, triggered by a lack of respect for their shared history, finds a new outlet—the assumption that Peter is effeminate. Phil’s devious manipulation—treading on Peter’s flowers and then burning them—is a deliberate act of cruelty designed to embarrass Peter and Rose. It reveals Phil’s deep-seated homophobia and his inability to confront anything divergent from his rigid definition of masculinity.

While feigning deliberate ignorance, George facilitates Phil’s rejection with little regard for Rose. Under a relentless barrage of misogynistic sniping, Rose’s spirit visibly wilts. By the time Peter arrives at the sprawling ranch, Rose has succumbed to alcohol dependency, consuming a bottle a day. Having effectively neutralized the maternal figure, Phil redirects his wrathful machinations toward the son, a maneuver that ultimately proves to be his downfall and destruction.

Campion has crafted her narrative with the utmost dramatic complexity. The intricate tapestry unfolds through the clash between two men who share a same-sex attraction, both unmarried. The older man embraces a secretive life, while the younger man openly embraces his sexual orientation with an unusual brightness.

Savage’s novel introduces intriguing details: the ranch hands’ enthusiasm for Western films and their rivalry over cowboy films through Abercrombie & Fitch attire, which Phil’s reluctance towards such cinematic experiences. Campion’s film adaptation delves deeper into Phil’s psyche through Peter’s discovery of his hidden sanctuary. Here, the collection of Physical Culture magazines—Bronco Henry’s legacy—illuminates Phil’s ideal masculinity. Inscribed in a 1900 issue (“Weakness is a Crime. Don’t be a Criminal”) establishes the core principle of the ideology: a celebration of male physicality and condemnation of effeminacy. The homoerotic tone is undeniable—incorporating suggestive poses of bodybuilders and partial nudity (their genitals strategically hidden behind strategically placed fig leaves) aligns with Peter’s perceived “weakness” embodied by artificial flowers. In particular, Campion omits a visual representation of Bronco Henry himself. Instead, her focus lies on fetishistic objects: scarves, saddles, and magazines. It serves as a reminder of Phil’s idol.

Phil’s reverence for Bronco Henry, portrayed as his sole mentor in ranching, carries deeper meaning through its veiled depiction. Phil can sustain his idolization of Bronco Henry and perhaps his desire for him only through internal absorption. He incorporates cutouts of Bronco Henry’s images, likely sourced from quietly delivered mail-order magazines, into his persona. The publications promote rigid masculinity where “weakness is a crime,” leaving no room for those perceived as “sissies” like Peter, regardless of any internal conflicts Phil himself may experience.

Campion solidifies herself as a leading director in The Power of the Dog. Her two other main collaborators, cinematographer Ari Wegner and editor Peter Sciberras support her ability to deliver nuanced performances. Wegner utilizes light with exceptional intention, shaping the film’s thematic currents through her subtle manipulations. Conversely, Sciberras employs deliberate tempo strategies. He strategically elongates seemingly inconsequential moments, imbuing them with a pregnant quality that ultimately yields significant revelations.

Kodi Smit-McPhee delivers a captivating performance as Peter, a character shrouded in perpetual ambiguity. The actor achieves remarkable feats in maintaining a consistently enigmatic presence throughout the narrative. This mysterious quality lies at the core of Peter’s characterization and significantly contributes to the film’s tension. However, the foundation of the film rests on Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Phil. Cumberbatch delivers a tour-de-force performance, embodying a character plagued by profound internal conflicts. Phil’s anger and unease regarding his masculinity continually threaten to erupt through the hyper-masculine persona he staunchly maintains. Yet, the portrayal is not merely a surface performance. Cumberbatch adeptly conveys the underlying despair driving Phil’s performance of masculinity.

Setting the Scene

The Power of the Dog garnered significant critical acclaim and several awards, including the Oscar for Best Director for Campion and multiple Best Actor awards for Cumberbatch. However, a vocal minority opposed Phil’s portrayal in the film, particularly citing a perceived lack of realism. These critiques sparked a critical examination of the definition of realism within the Western genre. Compared to iconic Western films such as Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, Lew Landers’ Death Valley, or Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon, a pattern emerges. The male protagonists in the films demonstrate that masculinity is not monolithic. We see heroes with flaws and villains with layers of toughness. There is complexity in how the characters embody masculinity. In contrast, Phil’s masculinity is a carefully constructed performance, a mask he wears to conceal homoerotic longing. Subversion of traditional Western archetypes forms the core of the allegations of “unrealism.”

In Peter’s initial inquiry into the essence of masculinity, his response veers toward sociopathy, while Phil remains silent. The exploration of maturity transcends the traditional parameters of the Western genre, even when compared to recent revisions themed around homoeroticism and homophobia. The film keeps several iconic Western features, like the large cattle ranch and its affluent owners, the hardworking ranch laborers, and the misery of the suppressed Native American people. It diverges from typical hero and villain genre tropes. Its narrative moves away from the classic archetypes of “black hats” and “white hats,” instead depicting complex interactions among three men and a woman, all ensnared by pervasive patriarchal ideologies personified here as the power of the dog.

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