Dog Eat Dog

Jane Campion makes a western

Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog, 2021, DCP, color, sound, 127 minutes. Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch).

“FOR WHAT KIND OF MAN would I be if I didn’t help my mother, if I didn’t save her?” Jane Campion’s unsparing The Power of the Dog opens with this question, spoken in voice-over by teenaged Peter Gordon (Kodi Smit-McPhee), one in the film’s principal-character quartet. Something in the words and the timbre of Peter’s voice instantly called up a memory of Psycho’s Norman Bates and his affectless “A boy’s best friend is his mother,” an association confirmed by the first sight of Codi—tall and skinny, with gestures that are blatantly femme, or in the lingo of the times (1925), a Nancy boy. But if Hitchcock’s rendering of horror (Psycho) and romance (Vertigo) depict the perversions of certain men who are uncertain of their identity, The Power of the Dog goes further, defining patriarchy as the collective monster that twists and cripples the lives of everyone in its grasp. Never didactic, Campion constructs the film around the power dynamic central to patriarchal rule: the binary, which requires the oppression of all women and the repression of the feminine within all men. Peter’s “What kind of man would I be” is the question that burrows beneath every incident, every scene, every character until the answer that has been prepared by Campion’s direction—her gathering of evidence in restrained yet tactile close-ups, and the dark harmonies of Jonny Greenwood’s dense score—is fully before our eyes.

The film is a pared-down adaption of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name, but the novel is a family melodrama, the film an epic human tragedy seen through the microcosm of four characters, all prisoners within the law of the father. The setting is the vast, seemingly open landscape of Montana between the Great War and the Great Depression, when fortunes were made in ranching. The New Zealand wilderness, where Campion shot the first season of Top of the Lake (2013), stands in for Montana and, as in that miniseries, suggests the magnificent indifference of a natural world that endures despite its despoilers. Director of photography Ari Wegner employs a seemingly limitless depth of field with digital long lenses to keep the distant rolling hills and mountains equally in focus with the humans who get in right up in one another’s faces, and in ours. Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his brother George (Jesse Plemons), both in their forties, run the ranch that belongs to their parents—well, legally to their father—who’ve decamped to a more comfortable life in Salt Lake City. The alpha male, Phil commands some twenty ranch hands, but does more work than any of them, castrating bull calves with one bare hand, roping steers, braiding rawhide, and enjoying occasional swims in the buff with his cowboy crew in a nearby creek, which he also visits alone. George keeps the books and otherwise assists Phil, who has a vicious tongue and calls him Fatso. The brothers have been sharing the same bed since childhood. When George hits the sack, Phil keeps him awake by reminding him of the adventures they had together when they were young, and how they were like Romulus and Remus, raised by a wolf. Although he never speaks of it, the literary references that separate Phil from everyone else are the result of his classics studies at Yale, where he was Phi Beta Kappa. When he returned to Montana, he covered over his experiences out East—literally, with barnyard filth—to make himself appear indistinguishable from his hired hands. The “wolf” in the brothers’ story is Bronco Henry, who, for Phil, who, was the champion rider/roper/castrater. Bronco Henry has been dead for twenty years, and it seems that part of Phil stopped dead with the loss of him. All that’s left is hatred of himself and of everyone else.

The first time we see Phil, it is through the front windows of the ranch house. He is crossing the yard and as the camera follows him, tracking laterally right to left, the glass panes give us a partly obstructed view of this preternaturally erect man, whose gait, in accommodating the weight of chaps and spurs, appears both masterful and effortless. Toward the end of the film, we again from the same vantage point watch Phil cross the yard, but this time he can barely keep his body upright. No longer able to sustain the masquerade of masculinity, he has been transformed from predator to prey. In discussions of gender, we often refer to femininity as a masquerade, but seldom do we describe masculinity in that way. In the first of her eight theatrical features to have a man at the center, Campion exposes masculinity as just as much a mask—as armor against the exposure of vulnerability, tenderness, loss, and above all, forbidden desire for another man: all the qualities and actions that might identify him as womanly. What makes Cumberbatch’s performance memorable is not simply the spectacle of uber manliness which the actor had to practice and physically embellish. It’s the moments when loneliness and longing break through the armor and catch the character and, I suspect, the actor, by surprise. Phil is a terrorist: He terrorizes his brother; his brother’s bride, Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), whom he hates for coming between himself and George; and especially Rose’s son Peter, who seems inured to Phil’s homophobic vitriol. Peter takes a walk one night, passing between groups of snickering cowboys, sauntering as if he were a model on a catwalk; when he gets to the end of the path, he turns around and retraces his steps. Peter’s defiance and refusal to be shamed impresses Phil, who decides to take Peter under his wing and teach him everything Bronco Henry taught him. It turns out that Peter can also see, in a distant rock formation, the shape of a dog, its jaws opened wide. Bronco Henry showed Phil the dog, but Peter saw it on his own. How little it takes to transform loathing to fatherly benevolence to erotic desire. There is a scene in the barn, where Phil allows Peter—what a cool customer he is—to see how much he wants him. It is perhaps necessary to say that not a single moment in The Power of the Dog is camped. If that idea crossed your mind, it would be because I’m at a loss to describe the complexity of emotion in this deadly serious scene, where one man, whose entire life has been about accruing power, allows another man to have power over him—the power of the dog. Immediately after Peter’s opening voice-over, we see a closeup of two bulls going at each other head-to-head. What happens between Phil and Peter is a life-or-death struggle for power, in which the first one to show any sign of submission—to reveals himself as feminine—will die.

In a brilliant, brief 1971 essay on Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life (1959), where the struggle for power is focused on race rather than gender, Rainer Werner Fassbinder wrote about the Black mother and daughter who are the heart of the film. The daughter, who is light skinned, wants to pass; the mother believes that passing is a sin. “The cruelty,” wrote Fassbinder, “is that we can understand them both, both are right and no one will be able to help them. Unless we change the world. At this point all of us in the cinema cried. Because changing the world is so difficult.” I wept at the end of the Power of the Dog because changing the world today seems no more possible than in the still Wild West of 1925 Montana.

The Power of the Dog opened in US theaters on November 18 and comes to Netflix on December 1.