starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee
written by Jane Campion, based on the novel by Thomas Savage
directed by Jane Campion
by Walter Chaw There is about Jane Campion's work the air of the poet, and indeed there may be no better interpreter, translator, or adaptor of poetry than another poet. Her body of work is, to a one, in the thrall of the rapture of language: what words are capable of when arranged properly, powerfully. Campion demonstrates mastery of both what is spoken and what is seen, how words delivered with exquisite, just-so composition and deadly-true execution become, at the moment of their sublimation, images in the mind like witchcraft with no physical intervention in between. Music in the eye. Of all the easy and obvious examples in her work--the imagistic, rapturous biography of John Keats (Bright Star), the voice of the voiceless in The Piano, the shockingly immediate illumination of Kiwi author Janet Frame in An Angel at My Table--the one that springs to mind most easily and often when I'm describing Campion's work is the reaction of New York City English teacher Frankie, played by Meg Ryan, as she contemplates the words of Lorca printed on a literacy campaign poster in a subway car in Campion's In the Cut. She looks upon them as a sinner looks upon the gallery of saints illuminated in the coloured windows of old cathedrals. Words are a rapture, a vehicle, and Campion, with her training as a painter, proves through the medium of film to be the premier painter of words. Loathe to make such pronouncements, I nonetheless spend most days thinking of Campion as my favourite living director and other days thinking of her as my favourite of all time. She is an artist.
Campion adapts The Power of the Dog from a Thomas Savage novel that, when it was published at the end of the Sixties, was hailed nearly universally, though not, save for one anonymous review, for its treatment of homosexuality, expressed as homophobia in a brutal, masculine context. The author of thirteen novels, Savage excelled at the kind of literature we've come to equate with Cormac McCarthy: elegiac, sometimes barbaric, always eloquent in its simple directness and prone to exploring some profoundly murky depths. Campion understands how Savage is part of a tradition of what admirer Annie Proulx has characterized as the "landscape novel"--a subgenre defined by the passage of time and the relentless drive for material mastery of the ill-got land. Here we find the likes of Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), the most important rancher in his corner of 1925, along with his brother George (Jesse Plemons), whom he calls "fatso" because it gets his goat. In the book, Savage marvels at how Phil loved to get peoples' goat, and how his intimidating intelligence, manual cleverness, and anthropological curiosity were mostly employed in the destruction of others through cruelty and the wilful manufacture of discomfort. George, however, is kind, and Savage portrays that kindness as a slowness. Phil graduates college with honours while so disparaging the Greek system that tries briefly to court him and his riches that George, in the novel, is rejected as well, much to George's sadness. In the film, we only know that George is steady while Phil is mercurial, but they function together as stable Yin in symbiotic tension against explosive Yang. Because Campion is who she is, we also understand that The Power of the Dog is, at the bottom of everything, about loneliness and the often-irresolvable desire for touch and connection, especially for the outcast.
In many ways, Phil--for all his prowess as a cattle rancher, his lack of squeamishness in carrying out the unsavoury elements of ranching (a graphic calf castration is one of a couple of hard-to-watch sequences in the film), his joy in neither bathing nor using gloves to protect his battered hands from the myriad nicks and cuts such unsavoury pursuits inflict--is also an outcast. Such self-loathing drives him that he preempts others' disapproval of him for perhaps secret reasons with enough obvious reasons to hate him. Phil sees kindness as some elaborate ruse meant to disguise the diseased natures of the kind. In the book, out of bitterness and maybe the weight of his secrets, he takes it upon himself to school even a "fat," spoiled little boy in the foolishness of challenging Phil to something so trivial as a game of marbles. In the film, he reserves his angriest scorn for widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her awkward, gangly, peculiar son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil calls Peter, a medical student who likes to make paper flowers and wear stiff blue jeans, a ridiculous hat, and a carefully-pressed white shirt, "sissy" and "f----t" and "Ms. Nancy." The volume and specificity of his venom are self-reflexive, of course, set against Phil's winsome recollections of his late, lamented mentor Bronco Henry, who taught Phil everything he needed to know about surviving in the world. Campion's additions to the novel include a shrine Phil has constructed for Bronco Henry, fussily polishing a saddle perched on a sawhorse, plus a more personal totem, a handkerchief of Bronco Henry's that Phil keeps against his skin. It's on this saddle that Phil eventually perches Peter, ostensibly to teach Peter to ride but, for Campion, a clear visual symbol of another type of grooming Phil might be performing, mysterious even to himself. Campion's most notable augmentation of Savage's beautiful but spare prose is poesy, thick and lulling. The feeling of The Power of the Dog is akin in my mind to an image of precious, aged whiskey renowned for at once its corrosive ability and its incongruously stealthy delivery. Easy, even pleasurable to ingest, its impact is significant and lingering.
Campion's film is evil. Every scene is heavy with it, low with it, like the strange Spanish moss that hangs from the twisted branches of mangroves. Though having nothing to do with it, I can't imagine a better screen adaptation of Baudelaire than The Power of the Dog. Where Savage's book devotes long passages to happier relationships and times, Campion zeroes in on what's wrong with Phil. She moves a lacerating line Phil delivers to destabilize Rose to earlier in her film so that it coincides with George--who has wooed and married Rose in his deliberate way, and introduced her into the sprawling ranch house as his surprise bride--excusing himself into the cavernous dark of the house to "fiddle" with the furnace and provide some warmth for his beloved. George is too dense to understand that Rose will never be warm in this house. Phil sees in Rose's essential sweetness and simplicity a calculating gold-digger. What Campion pulls out is Phil's terror at losing his brother, as he's lost Bronco Henry. He would rather George be miserable. A scene with no correlation in the book featuring Rose trying to teach the heavy-footed George how to dance on a windswept bluff concludes with George expressing how nice it is not to be alone anymore--a sentiment rhymed later when an old couple remarks how easy aging has been because they've had the other to see them as they were (and, in every important way, remain). At a dinner party with the jovial governor (Keith Carradine), George does his part to humiliate Rose as well, albeit unintentionally, by cajoling her into playing the baby grand he and a few of the ranch hands have previously wrestled into the drawing-room. Rose takes to her cups--where she stays, tippling and beset by headaches, her grief exacerbated by the arrival of Peter at the end of the schoolyear, whistled at and bullied for being effeminate and physically ridiculous.
Misattributed as a book about the struggle between good and evil, The Power of the Dog is more about the struggle between socially-coded masculine traits and socially-coded feminine traits, and how the latter is seen as pejorative for no good reason other than that those doing the taxonomy are men. The key to Phil's degeneracy is that his urges are regarded as degenerate, leading him to characterize his relationship with Bronco Henry as an apprenticeship in the manly arts rather than a romance, tender, that could have made him less alone and, by extension, less afraid. After tormenting Peter, he begins to warm to the boy, placing a hand behind Peter's neck in the film that is meant as acceptance but plays as threatening. Peter, strange Peter, doesn't flinch. In the book, it's a friendly arm around the shoulders. Campion adds another scene where Peter rolls and lights one of Phil's endless chain of cigarettes and alternates drags with Phil, an indecipherable look in his eye. The Power of the Dog is a western noir in one sense, with the fatale this boy who has lost his father to suicide and now sees his only purpose as ensuring his mother's hard-won happiness through remarriage. In Peter, Phil sees a useful tool and, far too late, a genuine ally. What Campion sees is the opportunity to express how there's evil, real evil, in the Blakean idea that it's better to smother an infant in its cradle than to repress the contents of a heart's desire. Campion plays out the brothers' conflict with a reference to Romulus and Remus: twins suckled by a she-wolf, shepherds, founders of Rome--though not before a dispute over augury leads to Romulus murdering his brother.
The film presents a happy ending in the traditional sense, though I'm not so sure. After the dust settles, what's left in The Power of the Dog but an obviously-disturbed child soon to be a brilliant surgeon, an alcoholic woman broken down and gaslit by a well-meaning husband and his chaotically evil brother, and an affable simpleton unequipped to manage the essential wildness of a large group of men engaged in violent pursuits? I see in this not the resolution of a difficult episode, but the first germinating seed of an empire that will fall to unchecked hedonism and expansion. In every corner of Campion's film are hints of the modern world intruding on this western idyll. Not unlike McCarthy's Border Trilogy, the picture is perched in a liminal space between the past we romanticize and the past we grieve. Still, it's beautiful, so beautiful, this suspended moment right before the bad asserts itself at last and forever. We're there, too, on this precipice. We only have a minute (you can hear the agents of our dissolution at our backs and gaining), but looking over this valley, there is room for a moment's appreciation of the grandeur of what could have been and the foundations of the mythologies we'll use to console ourselves as we try to figure out where it all went bad and when we knew it. Belonging to a tradition of epic poems that tell of arms and the man, The Power of the Dog is an invocation to our epic muse to guide us through the story of these, our blood-red phrases unspooling ever into an uncertain future. The world is ruled by men who don't know themselves and would rather destroy it all than unearth again the things they've buried deep. Kindness is seen as a weakness. There is no order. But there is this breathtakingly beautiful film by Jane Campion, presented as an epitaph for who we believed we could be, given time.