Wednesday 1 December 2021

On demand: "The Power of the Dog"

Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog is a peculiar one in many ways, not least for being a Western where all the most significant action takes place indoors. It opens with the spectacular feint of a cattle drive, spearheaded by chalk-and-cheese brothers Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons); and sporadically we peer out at the rolling hills of New Zealand, here passing for the Montana of 1925. Mostly, though, Campion forces the characters she's yanked from Thomas Savage's 1967 novel into close-quarters, the better to observe pronounced contrasts in their personalities. Where George is shy, chivalrous, and has ideas about coming in off the range and moving into high society, Phil remains militantly unwashed, and brooding-to-contemptuous in his attitudes to others. (His pet name for George is "Fatso".) Those contrasts don't even out any after George takes a wife, local hotelier and recent widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst), installing yet more folks under this roof - for Rose brings with her a son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a whey-faced, whippet-thin teen first introduced pressing flowers. Naturally, Phil takes against the boy, calling him "half-cooked", and more broadly appears dismayed at the fact this proto-emo and his barely less fragile mother have swept in to steal his sap of a sibling's heart. We wonder whether this might be pure jealousy, Phil's acknowledgement that his own heart is incapable of such depth of feeling. Netflix have handed Campion the resources to expand the baroque love triangle of her international breakthrough The Piano into an even more baroque quadrangle. Yet The Power of the Dog comes down to much the same thing, ultimately: a battle over domestic space.

What's admirable about the new film is that it's never schematic. Campion, now an elder stateswoman, is far less interested in the colour of her characters' hats than she is in observing all these people (even the often villainous Phil) as people. Rarely can a film have taken so much trouble to give everybody on screen a hobby. Phil has a banjo he plucks at; if he's representative of any group, it may be all those men who've picked up a guitar in a bid to demonstrate their mastery of the universe. Peter shakes off the slights he receives as an incipient science nerd via rigorous use of a hula hoop. Removed by marriage from the restaurant she tends more or less single-handed, Rose takes to the bottle to refill her now-copious free time: she gains a hubby, but there's no hobby big enough to occupy the hole becoming a woman of means leaves in her life. When George, ever-sensitive to trouble on the homefront, moves a baby grand into the ranchhouse for his wife, the link to The Piano is made only more explicit: once again, Campion is fascinated by the way her characters express themselves. That fascination trickles down to fill every nook and cranny of this household, with its stuffed and mounted animals' heads and its shrine to the boys' late father. It's a bit of a dump, if truth be told, a longtime bachelor pad that could sorely do with a woman's touch, or at least a little lightening up. Watch how the initially mute housekeeper (Genevieve Lemon) comes to renewed, chatty life once Rose moves in and the boys aren't around. Yet when Rose herself sits down at the piano to pick out a tune, she's rapidly drowned out by Phil and his bloody banjo-plucking. My house, my tunes.

It is, then, a Western of duets rather than duels, more lyrical than it is bloody or violent. (Hence the 12A rating - though some viewers may want to look away when it's time for Phil to castrate his bulls.) Plemons and Dunst, reunited after TV's Fargo, have the easy energy of plumped-up cushions nestling on a sofa, though they're rudely scattered as Cumberbatch - radiating negativity, if never fully shaking off his air of good breeding - hones in on the kid with fateful consequences. Campion sketches these unusual, conflicted figures so well that we're prepared to follow them wherever this perverse plot goes - and it is a plot that yields genuine surprises, from the fate of the rabbit Peter brings into this household to the sheer number of topless cowboys the camera observes in passing. Couple those with the box of unmentionables Peter discovers under the porch - a rather more profane shrine - and it becomes clear Campion comes this way to skewer the myth of the macho cowpoke. Not all the subversion works in the film's favour: I always think it a pity when a director strips Dunst of her usual vivacity - though I see Rose has to wither for Campion to make her point. (I also wonder whether a trad Western such as 2003's Open Range, which itself picked over the pros and cons of domesticity, wasn't better placed to generate an emotional impact.) Yet this is a film with plenty of eccentric life in it elsewhere, and a real feel for tetchy, awkward, passive-aggressive human interaction. Best to approach it as a tale of the unexpected rather than a potential Best Picture, but The Power of the Dog may wind up as the only film in this year's awards mix that truly understands what it is to have to live with weird, toxic or just plain terrible housemates.

The Power of the Dog is still showing in selected cinemas, and is available to stream on Netflix from today.

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