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The Power of the Dog Is a Tamped-Down Melodrama of Masculinity

Right at the point that director Jane Campion should have pushed us all the way to the edge of our seats with fever-pitch intensity in The Power of the Dog, she pulls back to the solemnly serious. Just give us the melodrama, Jane!

Kodi Smit-McPhee and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog. (Netflix)

Is the melodrama making an unannounced comeback? The French have been turning them out, with Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) and now France starring Léa Seydoux (No Time to Die, The French Dispatch), a film that has been described as an “uneven blend of satire and melodrama” that sounds like it might be just what our deranged era requires.

In English-language films currently in release, Spencer is a weird and wonderful melodrama largely unrecognized as such by most critics. And now The Power of the Dog, screening on Netflix, has a colorful melodramatic narrative. Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead wrote the agitated scores for both films. But the big, deliberately lurid stylistic effects of melodrama are firmly tamped down by Jane Campion (The Piano, Portrait of a Lady, Angel at my Table, Sweetie), who’s a respected arthouse director and doesn’t involve herself in such lowly popular genres.

Which is a shame, because when it comes to the basic narrative, all the elements are there to make a real barn burner of a melodrama. The stormy villain backed by wealth and power, terrorizing the captives in his remote gloomy home; his cowed brother; the downtrodden widow he marries; and her frail-looking teenage son.

Then, just when you can’t bear the tension and suffering another minute, the sudden thrilling reversal! Sweet revenge! Innocence saved! Rough justice served!

But of course, it doesn’t really play that way. It has all the longueurs of serious drama, and instead of ramping up to the fever-chart pace of the melodrama, with its wild ups and downs that peak at surreality and even a startling hilarity, this film’s madder developments are treated with almost funereal solemnity.

Based on a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, the film is broken into chapters marked by Roman numerals, in case you failed to pick up on its high literary tone. Plus, it’s shot so gravely in muted tones that you automatically think, “Well, awards season is just around the corner.”

In short, Jane Campion just isn’t the filmmaker for me. But she’s undoubtedly very talented, and she makes handsome films that take on issues of gender and sexuality with a humorlessness that made her the toast of film studies departments back in the 1990s with The Piano (1993). If you loved The Piano, another period film with grand acting, fabulously gloomy geography, and repressed sexuality doing a lot of damage, you’ll love this one, too.

Early long shots in The Power of the Dog are a feast for the eye, establishing the windswept golden-brown Montana landscape through the dark rough-hewn windows of a large rural estate house. Striding across that landscape is the domineering, heavily booted, Western antihero figure of such manifest “toxic masculinity” that he might as well be wearing a sandwich board announcing himself as such. Again, very like a melodrama, which in silent film used to feature essentializing descriptions of characters like “The Villain,” “The Boy,” “The Young Mother,” “The Friendless One,” “The Toxic Male,” and so on.

So toxic is his masculinity, Phil can’t make a move or speak a sentence that isn’t aggressive, hostile, threatening, belittling. His first full line, apropos of nothing and addressed through the bathroom door to his pudgy brother hiding out in his bath, is, “So, have you figured it out yet, fatso?”

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog. (Netflix)

The Power of the Dog is about two wealthy Montana ranching brothers in 1925 named George and Phil Burbank (Jesse Plemons and Benedict Cumberbatch), who’ve grown up together and still share a comfortless bedroom furnished with narrow twin beds. What Phil wants George to “figure out” is that it’s the twenty-fifth anniversary of their being planted on the ranch, presumably as boys in their early-to-mid teens, where they were taught their ranching trade by the late, legendary cowboy “Bronco Henry,” who still obsesses Phil.

It’s a little unclear why their parents, called the Old Lady (Frances Conroy) and the Old Gent (Peter Carroll) — apparently cultured, prominent citizens who are friends with the governor (Keith Carradine) — live in town and only visit on special occasions. George handles the business side of their vast holdings and dresses in the citified suits of his father and the governor, with only a broad-brimmed hat to connect him to the outdoor cowboy life. Phil, in his dusty denims, is the boss of the ranch hands and physically runs the place. He’s absorbed the most destructively macho code of behavior associated with the traditional Western life, riding, roping, shooting, and generally living off the land.

Yet for all his vicious treatment of George, Phil is desperate for his company and betrays an edge of angry vulnerability in trying to draw him out. (“You got a sore gut or something? Seems like it pains you to put two words together.”) As a way to endure his brother’s constant cruelties, George has withdrawn into a blank-eyed, stolid state of unresponsiveness and will only begin to emerge when he meets Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst). She’s the widow of a local doctor who’s supporting herself and her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), by running a restaurant that she tries to keep neat and respectable, despite its location in a rough town just a few doors down from the local bar and brothel patronized by Phil and his ranch hands.

We meet Peter through close-ups of the colored paper he’s cutting up into fine strips to make paper flowers that will ultimately decorate the restaurant tables. From the moment we see them, and the painfully thin, pale, fey teenager who made them, we know they’ll draw Phil’s sadistic ire like a magnet. This is the beginning of the film’s growing mood of sick dread, as it seems clear from that point on what’s going to happen: George and Rose will marry, and though Peter is bound for medical school, there’s no way he won’t wind up living on the ranch as well. The only question seems to be which of the three gets destroyed by Phil first, and which second, and which third.

Phil’s first act upon hearing of the marriage is to whip a tethered horse in the face with a long heavy cloth, a horrible scene that means, as I’m sure you veteran moviegoers know, that he’s got to be killed. You’ll be ready to kill him yourself, if only you could get through the screen.

But the narrative up to that point has worked overtime to establish that none of his three human victims can possibly do the honors. The best part is when you realize which one of them is going to do it, and then how it’s going to be done, but I can’t give those developments away.

Kirsten Dunst in The Power of the Dog. (Netflix)

There’s good stuff in this film, no doubt. Jesse Plemons as George has a wonderful moment when, newly married to Rose, who’s teaching him to dance the “box step,” he’s suddenly emotionally overcome and chokes out, “It’s nice not to be alone.”

And Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems in his overall effect as an actor to be far too thin and toffish to play this scary Western bully when you first hear it described, has great success by realizing that old playground fight rule: “crazy beats large.” Mainly through his pale eyes and the erratic quality of his stances and movements, which are too still or too suddenly doing something unexpected, he conveys that barely restrained psychosis that is most guaranteed to intimidate everyone around him.

Still, the arty slowness of the pace gives you plenty of time to think about some of the less persuasive developments in the film that a fast and furious melodrama might have made seem inevitable, fated.

Phil’s first interaction with Rose and Peter is so ugly, it seems incredible that George would move them into the same house with Phil a short time later. On top of that, in an enormous house that looks like it has fifteen bedrooms, George and Rose take the room next to Phil’s, with a shaky connecting door between them that allows Phil to hear the sounds of their sexual pleasure. If this is supposed to represent some sort of late-blooming ability in George to get revenge on his brother, Campion is doing nothing to indicate it.

And where does George go for most of the middle of the film, when Rose is so tormented by Phil’s treatment of her and the excessively macho tenor of life on the ranch that she sinks into alcoholism? He seems to disappear for about an hour.

But never mind. The film is being widely lauded, and David Rooney of the Hollywood Reporter conveys exactly the kind of effects directors are inevitably praised for, such as slowness, “exquisite” fussiness, and the small “notes” you can strain out of large events and emotions, because supposedly less is more:

This is an exquisitely crafted film, its unhurried rhythms continually shifting as plangent notes of melancholy, solitude, torment, jealousy and resentment surface. Campion is in full control of her material, digging deep into the turbulent inner life of each of her characters with unerring subtlety.

Campion’s high-minded sensibility is also on full display in interviews she’s giving to promote the film. She describes The Power of the Dog as “an art film writ large, which is what Piano was, too, really,” and laments that now it’s television that allows filmmakers to take chances, whereas “cinema is a lot more conservative.” She then lists the conservative movie genres that are allowed to be made, including “big superhero movies”: “I don’t enjoy them. I don’t get horror movies. I don’t even get piles of entertainment that lots of people love. I don’t understand them.”

Her blank incomprehension is marvelous. It’s so far beneath her, the “piles of entertainment” that people love, entertainment that’s so pitifully conservative, it can’t possibly take on the daring progressive notion of, say, toxic masculinity! Except in perhaps ten-thousand popular genre movie examples. Hell, Vincente Minnelli did a series of “male melodramas” on a version of that topic back in the 1950s, including one called Tea and Sympathy (1956) that indicates it’s repressed homosexuality that’s playing a major role in powering absurd and destructive macho codes of behavior, as Campion does in The Power of the Dog.

Oh well. Jane Campion’s not the only one who believes Jane Campion is a radical artist fighting to speak truth to power, instead of a longtime cosseted international favorite of the art and indie film worlds who’s got plenty of mainstream crossover success in Hollywood plus a ton of awards but wishes her budgets were higher.