Carry On Campion
As I may have alluded to before, I spent three months last Autumn living with family, a situation which none of us had ever really anticipated happening pre-pandemic. As a result, even more than usual I had a constant eye out for interesting films which would, not to put too fine a point on it, get me out of the house and give them a break from me. One of the movies which popped up on the radar was Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog, which enjoyed a very brief run at the local art house at the end of November. I pencilled it in. Then various people in the house tested positive for Covid, which put the mockers on any social movie-going for well over a week.
So we've only just got around to watching it (on TV, need it be said), which poses an interesting question. The Power of the Dog seems to have a lock on every single Best Film award going, with Campion enjoying a similar status with respect to Best Director prizes (I would have said something similar about Benedict Cumberbatch and the Best Actor gongs until he got beaten by Will Smith at the BAFTAs); it is the critical darling of the season. Do I therefore find myself more inclined to say nice things about it, than would have been the case three months ago? Have I spared myself the embarrassment of basically saying 'Mmm, well, it's okay,' about what later proved to be a towering instant classic?
It's a moot point. What is certain is that this is an adaptation of a relatively obscure novel by Thomas Savage, set in the wide open spaces of Montana in the 1920s. Cumberbatch plays Phil Burbank, one of a pair of brothers who own a successful cattle ranch – it is fair to say Phil knows his own mind and is not too concerned about social niceties like politeness or personal hygiene. He routinely addresses his mild-mannered brother George (Jesse Plemons) as 'fatso' and there is never any doubt over who is really in charge, certainly when it comes to ordering the hired hands about.
Then, in the course of one of their regular cattle drives, the brothers meet a widowed inn proprietress named Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). George takes rather a shine to Rose, much to Phil's disdain – Phil himself is scathing about Peter, declaring him to be weak and effeminate. You may therefore be able to imagine Phil's response when George elects to marry Rose and bring her back to the ranch, with the prospect of Peter staying with them for long periods of time, although the extent of the campaign of psychological warfare Phil embarks upon may still come as a surprise. But is there something deeper behind Phil's vicious resentment of Rose and her son?
It would be remiss of me not to point out that the critical acclaim The Power of the Dog has received has not quite been entirely universal – 'hate is not too strong a word' for one friend's response to it, while the actor Sam Elliott's complaints that the film misrepresents the American west, being altogether too gay, and had no business being filmed in New Zealand, have been met with bemusement and some mockery (this apparent insistence on Dogme-like authenticity is a little surprising coming from someone who appeared in Hulk, Ghost Rider, and The Man Who Killed Hitler And Then The Bigfoot).
Then again, this is ostensibly a western, and that's one of the genres that certain kinds of traditionalist can be a bit over-protective of, on the grounds that it epitomises all the key values of both America and genuine masculinity. Well, that's a point of view, but there would be a lot to unpack there and I think the key question is whether The Power of the Dog really qualifies as a western at all. Geographically it's on point, of course, although the mid-1920s setting is a shade after the 'classic' period (although not by much – The Wild Bunch is set in the 1910s, after all). But really it comes down to the essence of the genre, which for me is about issues of morality and self-realisation; how people choose to behave in a context where the laws of civilised society are still nascent and open to debate. If The Power of the Dog touches on this, it's only very obliquely; this is a very modern film in its focus on issues of identity and its psychological depth – although I would agree there's a lot of self-realisation, or lack of it, in the back-stories of the major characters here. It may be a western, but it's also a brooding psycho-drama and a character piece, particularly with regard to Phil Burbank.
I mentioned a while back about how we are currently enjoying a period of Peak Cumberbatch; I've no idea how well the Louis Wain film actually did money-wise, but the last Marvel movie he appeared in was practically the definition of a smash hit and (BAFTA excepted) he looks set to fill up his bathroom with prizes for this one (I don't think it's too controversial to suggest that Netflix fund films like The Power of the Dog to get credibility rather than make money). And deservedly so: he succeeds in making Phil a colossally nasty piece of work without going over the top or suggesting he is irredeemably bad. The film gains much of its effect from the suggestion in the second half that he may not be, although this is a film with an essential element of ambiguity to it. Characters' motives remain unclear – when Phil suddenly begins to act much more amiably towards Peter, is it out of a genuine desire to make a connection, or is it just part of his latest plan to make Rose's life even more miserable? Questions like these are where the power of the film emanates from.
It's a terrific performance from Cumberbatch and one which makes up the core of the film – though he is very capably supported by the rest of the cast, most of whom are also up for awards recognition, and deservedly so. (Jesse Plemons in particular deserves credit for taking a stolid sort of character who apparently says and does very little and turning him into a three-dimensional human being.)
Then again, and I don't think I'm being wise after the fact, the whole film is of the kind which radiates class and quality – New Zealand stands in for Montana to breath-taking effect, and there's a nicely understated score from Jonny Greenwood too. All the elements are marshalled with great precision and skill by Campion, who nevertheless never gets caught either writing or directing the film with ostentation. And while I've spent a lot of time talking about The Power of the Dog's awards chances, it's the actual quality of the film which counts. I can see how it might not be to everyone's taste – too slow, or too oblique, to say nothing of the subject matter - but this is still a film of substance.