The power of the dog
Director: Jane Campion
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee
New Zealand director Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog comes more than a decade after she made Bright Star about the last three years of poet John Keats’s life and his romance with Fanny Brawne. It had a great cast of Ben Wishaw and Abbie Cornish. The director’s latest, The Power of the Dog, which just hit Netflix, is a distraction from most of her works in which the main character is always a woman. I remember her title in the 1993 Cannes Competition, The Piano, a period piece starring Holly Hunter (an essay about a ‘stupid’ woman), Harvey Keitel and Anna Paquin. It won the top Palme d’Or at Cannes and won the Academy Award for Best Actress for Paquin (who was only 11 at the time) and a trophy for Best Supporting Actor for Hunter.
It’s possible The Power of the Dog could win a couple of Oscars early next year, though it’s certainly not in the same league as The Piano, which was much more emotionally and passionately gripping. Campion’s current creation, adapted from Thomas Savage’s novel of the same name, is a disturbing mix of jealousy, rivalry and hatred for its love and affection. Phil and George are brothers who, despite their differences in chalk and cheese character, are inseparable as conjoined twins. They even share a bed, which makes us wonder if they have homosexual tendencies. After inheriting a large ranch in Montana where they raise livestock and train horses, they have come up with a beautiful pattern to coexist in their palatial mahogany-paneled home in the middle of nowhere.
It’s 1925 and Campion is bringing an exciting cowboy story, but without guns, bullets and fights. The confrontations are internalized with Phil – superbly played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who here stars in a departure from Campion’s female heroes – outraged by a third and fourth person intruding on the brothers’ domestic scheme. George brings home his wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee).
Rugged and raunchy, Phil believes the world is meant for the fittest – not for Rose, who leaves her in a mood of melancholy and alcoholism. Peter is a sissy, a mother’s pet, in training as a surgeon, who makes beautiful paper flowers in his spare time. When he puts them on the dinner table, he is immediately branded as Miss Nancy. Phil never misses an opportunity to taunt Rose or her son. While she’s practicing on her piano for a reception her husband plans to hold for governor, Phil plays the same tune on his banjo, outsmarting and humiliating her.
Interestingly, although both Phil and Peter are outwardly two poles apart, there is a strong, almost despicable, streak running through them. We see this early on when Phil castrates a bull with his bare hands, and much later we would see Peter cut his rabbit – which he puts down by saying he’s experimenting for his course in surgical medicine.
George is the weakest link here; always smartly dressed, he is a perfect gentleman, but is absent from the screen for a long time, and there is little we notice about him. Played by Jesse Plemons, he keeps to himself and oddly doesn’t intervene when Phil continues to harass Rose, who is even called a schemer who clings to George so that her son’s tuition can be paid.
Photographed in some of the wild parts of New Zealand (passed as Montana), Campion captures the beauty of the rugged hills and undulating valleys. Like the ups and downs of the landscape, we see a parallel in the relationships between Phil and Peter. He takes the boy under him and trains him to cowboy, horseback riding and the art of getting tough. Phil himself was trained by Bronco Henry, a cowboy from their youth.
The dog’s strength, despite its dull brown appearance, has interesting moments. Look at the way Campion has framed a picture of a series of windows, and we see a rider moving out – appearing and reappearing. Like this fade-in and fade-out shot, the drama here is exposed or hidden in obscure motives, suppressed anger and suppressed sexuality. It’s a devastatingly brutal look at lives lived in the bleak recesses of turbulent emotions.
But I wish Dunst had gotten a better written part. If you remember, she was fantastic in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholy – a film that got the helmer in trouble at Cannes, where he jokingly hinted that he was a fan of Hitler. I remember Dunst’s acute discomfort and embarrassment at that press conference where the Danish author infuriated half the world. Dunst walked away with the Best Actress Palm, although there are reports that the jury also wanted to give the work a Best Picture Award.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and film critic who has covered many film festivals including Cannes, Venice and Tokyo for three decades)
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