The concept of a secret is fascinating; it can only exist if it is not brought into language, and can only be what it is if nobody mentions it. Jane Campion’s new film The Power of the Dog is a phenomenal exploration of this, of the power given to what cannot be named. The film is about many things it never actually verbalizes, insisting on themes without persisting with them. It’s about a gay relationship, but never speaks of it; it’s about a murder plot, but never addresses it as such; it’s about the Oedipal complex, but never mentions it; it’s about a man’s relationship with his mentor, but the mentor’s never seen. The Power of the Dog is about Westerns, but is not a Western itself.
The Western genre is specifically suited for analyses of masculinity, which is perhaps one of the reasons why the style has become so popular in recent years as the #MeToo movement and dissections of patriarchy have shaped the contemporary cultural epoch. The Power of the Dog is resolutely a psychological drama and lacks the traditional trappings of Western cinema (gunfights, heroes, honor, imperialism, etc.) but taps into the significations within Westerns, utilizing their particular symbols and signifiers for greater ends.
On a ranch, there can only be one or two masculine bulls; the rest are literally castrated to prevent excessive reproduction and infighting. In Campion’s film, Phil Burbank demands to be the only real bull, the only dominant male on the ranch in 1925 Montana. He belittles and insults everyone around him, especially his brother George, whom he taunts and ridicules at every opportunity. When the wealthy brothers and their employees eat a meal at an inn during a cattle drive, Phil makes sure to condescend to and upset their server Peter, someone he perceives to be effeminate. The boy’s mother weeps, and decades of personality are reflected in her tears before George, the more sensitive Burbank, comforts her and falls in love in the process. This will become the catalyst for a tense psychodrama of sexuality, power relations, secrets, and shame.
The Secret Life of Ranchers
The film is so utterly careful, so artfully subtle, that it’s easy for a viewer to miss the psychological developments as they happen; secrets do, after all, tend to remain unsaid. Phil is irate at the prospect of George marrying this lower-class widow Rose, played perfectly by Kirsten Dunst, and is disgusted by her son Peter, played with understated anger by Kodi Smit-McPhee. Phil’s hateful fury belies something left unmentioned– he is possessive of his brother in an almost psychosexual way. In the evening, he wanders the empty corridors of the quiet inn, looking for his brother. He settles on an empty bed and waits, half-awake, for the sibling to return. George removes some clothes and climbs into bed with Phil. Everything is inferred, and nothing is explicit.
Phil becomes obsessed with ruining Rose’s life and George’s happiness. Phil’s bitter pettiness is never fully explained, but rather hinted at in the context of his life. He seems to hate women, along with the feminine aspects of men like Peter, and demands domination. He yearns to be seen as a man’s man, like his mentor Bronco Henry. Bronco almost literally haunts the film as a spectre of desire, having influenced Phil and the ranch greatly but dying before the film takes place. He represents desire in two interesting ways. First, he seems to be the paragon of masculinity, as Phil and others tell near-mythical stories about Bronco’s abilities and power. However, he also seems to have been a gay man who perhaps took advantage of a younger Phil but nonetheless formed a close and intimate bond with him.
When Peter sees Phil alone in the woods, draping himself in Bronco Henry’s old handkerchief in an almost sexual manner, the two begin a closer relationship than Rose would like. After having demeaned Rose and attacked her publicly, driving her to drink regularly in order to cope with his presence, Phil’s strange friendship with her son sends Rose off the rails entirely, though more is going on beneath the surface than the viewer first realizes.
Phil Burbank is an amazing character, and Benedict Cumberbatch plays him in such a way as to not alienate viewers despite his explicit cruelties. While Cumberbatch’s American accent leaves much to be desired, sounding uncannily like Hugh Laurie attempting to be American in House, he is astoundingly good at locating the vulnerability at the center of Phil and building bitter defense mechanisms around it. The actor went extremely method, chain-smoking on set until succumbing to nicotine poisoning three times, and not bathing for weeks to emulate the character’s peculiar fascination with dirt, which has its own bevy of psychoanalytical meanings. He refused to speak to Kirsten Dunst during the shoot, locking into his character’s contempt for Rose and desire to destroy her.
Better Left Unsaid
Desire is the essential theme of the film. It informs the power relations, creates the secrets and shame, and fuels the animosity of every character. It’s difficult to display desire without directly referencing it, but Campion is a master of developing characters without dialogue, as attested to by the wordless protagonist of her Oscar-winning film The Piano. Assisted by cinematographer Ari Wegner, The Power of the Dog gorgeously turns landscapes into faces and faces into landscapes. In two scenes, characters spend some time trying to locate a meaningful image of a dog hidden in the distant mountains, and Campion and Wegner imbue the same meaning-making in nearly every shot of their characters, taking every opportunity to investigate the emotions and desire beneath the facial surfaces.
The complex desires of the characters lead the narrative into surprising, revelatory moments which are all the more fascinating for dancing around the subject almost entirely; nearly everything that is said relates to a desire which is unsaid. Perhaps it is this limitation, this relegation of desire into the realm of the unspoken, which entraps the characters and condemns them into a kind of repetition compulsion. Phil seems compelled to become Peter’s Bronco Henry, George seems caught up in always submitting to the sadism of his brother, and Rose seems destined to become her deceased alcoholic husband.
Peter, on the other hand, is the only person in the film who locates his own desire, and it’s typical of the movie that he may be the central character despite being largely absent from much of it. The Power of the Dog is bookended by Peter’s words, the only lines of narration in the film spoken by him: “When my father passed, I wanted nothing more than my mother’s happiness. For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?” These opening sentences indicate Peter’s desire before becoming forgotten in the ensuing tensions of the film and are central to any understanding of its ensuing psychological warfare.
Jane Campion is no stranger to this unique, defiantly atypical kind of psychodrama. Though she hadn’t made a feature film in 12 years before this, it’s clear that The Power of the Dog picks up on the criticism of power where her cinema left off. Intimately interested in the changing power dynamics of sexual difference, Campion’s films have always strived to reveal the ways in which sexual relations inform what it means to be dominant. Although she greatly expanded the character of Rose from the source material, this is still Campion’s first film to predominantly focus on male characters and masculinity itself, but she does so in a subversively queer way.
It would be wrong to go into this film thinking that it’s a normative Western, or anything other than a psychological slow-burn. If anything, the movie is an anti-Western in how it handles the homoeroticism and unspoken insecurities and desires latent beneath the surface of masculine competition and pride. It is a nearly $40 million art film, and maybe not intended for mass consumption. The movie’s emphases on absence and things left unspoken are sure to frustrate and confuse some viewers who would rather have a clearer overview of narrative and character intentions, but, ironically, it’s this aspect that makes the film such an essential meditation on secrets, desire, and shame.
It’s easy to get caught up in the theoretical concepts the film explores, but it would be a shame to ignore some of the excellent technical aspects of The Power of the Dog. The score from Radiohead guitarist Johnny Greenwood continues his excellent atmospheric film work, complimenting the characters with his increasingly fragile and anxious string motifs. The acting, as mentioned, is superb, with real-life couple Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons comfortably excellent together, as they’d been in the second season of Fargo. Benedict Cumberbatch strays quite a ways from his usual posh and intellectual characters seen in Sherlock and The Imitation Game, and is genuinely surprising as the complex, cruel, curious but confused Phil. Kodi Smit-McPhee is an absolute treasure, inhabiting the specific physicality of Peter and alternating expertly between victim and victimizer.
Of course, there is Campion. There has been a Campion-shaped hole in the heart of cinema for over a decade now, and 2021 is a perfect year for her comeback. She distinguishes her film from other good contemporary Westerns by utilizing the setting to tell a very different and actually topical story about the desires and shame lurking behind much masculinity. She manages something almost impossible– she tells us a secret by not telling it at all.