Readers Write In #456: On ‘The Power of the Dog’

Posted on April 5, 2022


By An Jo

Spoilers ahead

There’s a scene in ‘The Power of the Dog’ where Rose (Kirsten Dunst) mentions as a casual comment to Peter Gordon (Kodi Smit Mc-Phee), her son, and I paraphrase, ‘Oh, don’t be afraid of Phil; he is but just a man.’ And the next frame that Jane Campion the director shifts to, is that of Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), walking as the greatest alpha male the world has ever created—in his mind—to castrate a farm animal, without gloves, and with a rousing background score that raises in crescendo to match the walk of this man as the man. The year is 1925: And this scene epitomizes how fantastically Jane Campion has managed to capture Thomas Savages’ written words and weave them into magical cinema, just as Phil manages to weave those ropes, tie those ‘knots’ from animal hides, analogous to his character as shown to the audience. 

Suffice it to say, that this is a character study of a film in the garb of a ‘western.’ It is the story of a ‘bully,’ Phil, who doesn’t hesitate to call his brother George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) ‘Fatso,’ with or without the drop of a hat, with venom-spewing eyes, and shoots back at Rose, “Don’t call me a brother, You are but a cheap schemer,” when all that Rose mentions is that George and she had a great ride. Jane fantastically captures the depths of each character, right from the ‘cow-hands’ to the maid to the Governor and his wife to Ms. Lewis (Genevieve Lemon), the housekeeper. But her win is, firstly, in capturing the characters and characteristics of Phil and Peter, followed by Rose and George. 

One wouldn’t want to dwell much on the story but focus rather on the flow of the film and what it tries to achieve. It is the beauty of the team that they are able to capture through sights and sounds a complex, closeted-homosexual character like Phil through sheer machismo; lighting up of the cigarettes/tobacco; ‘gloating’ the one’s a stink and doesn’t like bathing; the punishing stamping-sounds of the cow-boy boots when Phil walks into the house, and, his facial expressions when he tries to dominate, but truly is just trying to get his pain across in the Americas of 1925. Can one even think what it is to be known as a gay person in 1925 of America? To be conceived that one is not a ‘man’ enough?George is the proverbial trouble-avoider of the family while Phil is the trouble-maker. Jane uses physical distinctions as well; George uses a ’salt-bath’ in his tub while Phil muddies himself in a hidden pond and then, naked as a bald eagle – keeping the girls and women in mind and else-where and for whoever is left on this earth lusting over the shot—and just dips into the pond to clean himself and ponder: Ponder on what, is a mystery, but there could be myriad of imaginations for the viewer. 

The one character, that one character that is so indecipherable and terrific is Peter: When one sees the climax of this film, one realizes what a fantastic character-study it is comprised of. There are ‘bits’ of clues strewn around that the fictional Holmes would have picked up but not us mere mortals: a) when he lays the trap to capture a bunny, b) when he tells the maid that the bunny doesn’t require a carrot, and, c) when he squeaks the neck of a rabbit leaving his uncle, the ‘alpha-male’ stunned at this man’s [boy’s?] demeanor! The way ‘Miss Nancy’ turns around and grimaces, is one shockwave that will take days to weaken. 

It would be impossible not to write a note about two fundamentally powerful performances from Benedict and Kodi. While we have known Benedict to never fail at any characterization, he just continues stunning us with the employment of his eyes, the timber in his voice, and the versatility with which he churns them together. The subtle but brutal bullying, captured through Rose’s sequence of drinking in the alley, and more prominently, through his ‘equation’ of the banjo with her practicing on the piano, is a one-of-a-kind horrifying scene that has been garnered in terms of impact on the psyche of the person being bullied. That, of course, results in Rose acting out on the animal hides. [No wonder Rose goes from, “I do not like drinking” to drinking in ‘stinking alleys.’]

The first time he gets truly external in terms of his anger is the time when he realizes Rose sold the hides to the Indians – there’s a line he says to Peter, and I paraphrase, “Your mother is a whatchamacallit, alcoholic with a capital ‘A’, the alphabet ‘A’ is there in it!—it is not him complaining or whining about Rose, but it is ravaging about himself, about his inability to express or live life as he wants, as the ‘classical arts’ in Yale University taught him, or how, Bronco Henry taught him to ‘ride’. What is noteworthy is how the insecurities of a closeted person take different directions; like aggression, or depression, and Benedict is simply marvelous in portraying that. Immediately after his showdown with George – and Plemons does a fine job when he knows that Phil is destroying all the people around him, yet, can only hesitatingly bring himself to convey that in an authoritative manner—and after that, when Kodi tells him that he has saved some animal hides, it is, well, if one may say so, a marvelous switch to the ‘feminine’ side in him. It is just yearning, longing, and a huge sense of identification. Those eyes convey them all. It is almost a sexual depiction when Peter keeps igniting Phil with his rubbing of Bronco’s saddle and shares a cigarette with him. Phil’s eyes just keep widening while he is braiding the rope and keeps listening to Peter as though he is hearing sermons. Benedict’s astonished when he hears Kodi describe the beautiful mountain ahead of the ranch as ‘a dog with its jaws wide open.’ Benedict responds twice, with the same intensity, “You just saw that?” “You just saw that?”

And then there’s Kodi, who deceives you throughout, but something changes in him, and one can make that out as he keeps playing with the teeth of that irritating comb throughout the film, even when Rose tells him to stop. His gait, at the family fair, when he is whistled at as ‘Miss Nancy,’ and when he sits with Phil for the first time and calls him ‘Phil’ instead of ‘Sir,’ boasts of a keen understanding of what the scene means. There is a step-by-step ‘ascent’ in his performance revealing what he really is, or maybe, what he truly ‘learned’ from Phil: And that happens with the trap, with his inclination toward surgery, cutting open the bunny for ‘educational’ purposes, snapping a bunny’s neck, and of course, the climax. This sinusoidal performance that kind of runs parallelly between Benedict and Kodi is a thrill to watch, and Jane marvelously captures that. 

Finally, the picturesque natural landscape is so vividly captured by Grant Adams that those winding and narrow roads are almost metaphorical to the chaotic, twisted nature of every character on the ranch, perhaps, excluding only the character of George. [Compare this with the straight railroad and the train speeding that’s beautifully captured when the Governor and his wife come to visit George and Rose, almost signifying the fact that the characters outside of the Burbanks’ world, almost lead a ‘straight,’ uncomplicated life.] 

An unmissable film, that the sands of time have no power to bury the beauty of this masterpiece.