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Genre Confusion in The Power of the Dog

Updated: Oct 5, 2023

Rhoyce Nova dissects Jane Campion's much-lauded, and maligned, Oscar-winning film.

Warning, major spoilers ahead.

Snaring the coveted award for Best Director, Jane Campion led the charge in The Power of the Dog’s stampede on the Oscars. Of the film's twelve nominations, hers was the only trophy. But did she deserve the golden accolade whilst her creative compadres were left hamstrung? This reviewer sides with the director's detractors, rather than her sycophants. Not only did Campion not deserve to win over her sidekicks, she is the sole reason why The Power of the Dog is a failure as a film.

Adapted for the screen, by Campion, from Thomas Savage's novel, The Power of the Dog corralled nods for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Production Design, Editing and Sound, as well as nods for all four of the lead cast, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons.

Drawing from its gay western ancestor, Brokeback Mountain, The Power of the Dog is a story about a sexually-repressed cowboy, Cumberbatch's Phil Burbank, who meets his match when he crosses paths with Peter Gordon, an effete, young city-slicker, in the form of fragile and doe-eyed Smit-McPhee. The story spirals into suppressed gothic horror when Phil's brother, George, played by Plemons, falls for Peter's mother, Dunst's Rose, and brings her to live with them in their sprawling, yet uncannily claustrophobic, ranch in Montana.

In the finale of The Power of the Dog, Cumberbatch’s sneering, domineering, homosexually-repressed rancher finally finds his downfall at the hands of Peter, the seemingly innocent, young man he has taunted. In an act of revenge, Peter poisons venomous Phil with anthrax-infected cowhides after luring him into a moment of sexual vulnerability.

Alas, like its ill-fated main character, the rot set in early with The Power of the Dog,

beginning with Jane Campion’s adaption of Savage’s novel for the screen. The director, in her efforts to straddle and undermine genres, has produced a film that is as confused as its sexually conflicted central character. Is it a simmering melodrama about a repressed homosexual cowboy, in which case, Phil is the main character; an intense psychodrama dissecting toxic masculinity, where Rose should be the star; or is it a dark gothic horror about an epicene young murderer, with Peter as the protagonist?

Regrettably, Campion's clumsy handling of her shifting protagonists undermines the promise and the payoff of the film and dilutes its impact. If, as promised in the opening scenes, The Power of the Dog is about an ill-fated gay affair, the drama should have stayed focused on the unfolding of the sexual dynamic between the closeted character of Phil and the unambiguously "sissy" persona of Peter. Instead, just as the sexual tension between the pair is established, Peter disappears. We are then subjected to a tedious treatise on toxic masculinity, as seen in the browbeating Phil metes out to his new sister-in-law, Rose, whose new husband, George, has likewise, vanished. This evacuates any sense of suspense set up by the initial, brutal courtship rituals of Phil. By the time Peter reemerges the movie mutates once more when an unheralded homicidal climax jack-knifes the hinted-at homoerotic plot line into gothic horror. Whilst powerful, the final scene fails to deliver its intended payoff because its promise was never adequately established in the opening sequences of the film. As Hitchcock will tell you, for suspense, the audience needs to know something bad is bound to happen, and one dissected bunny does not a murderous maniac make.

The fact that The Power of the Dog has any tension or drama at all can be chiefly attributed to Johnny Greenwood's - the lead guitarist from Radiohead - hauntingly ominous score, and Ari Wegner's romantically lush, chiaroscuro cinematography. If some of the shots in the film seem prosaic - in the opening sequence we see frame within a frame, negative space and closeup cutaways, all film school 101 mainstays - that is due to the director's choices, not the artistry of the cinematographer. Wegner's play of light over the hills of 'Montana' - actually shot in New Zealand - is as epic as the scenery she so masterfully lensed, and her renderings of flesh, pure Rembrandt. That neither of these artists received Academy Awards is a travesty.

As any filmmaker knows, editors and sound creatives contribute immensely to the atmosphere of every film and are often downplayed when it comes to credit. Peter Sciberras' inspired use of sweeping criss-cross transitions generated much of the sense of marching movement in the film, whilst the sound design is discordantly immersive, as befits the disconcerting discomfort of the movie's mood. Again, these creatives deserved to take Oscar home with them.

It is Jane Campion, alone, who is responsible for the failings of her film. Genre confusion, plot holes, drifting protagonists, and an un-foreshadowed twist ending, robs The Power of the Dog of all emotional promise and payoff. The result is an unsatisfying film that leaves the viewer as cold as its chilling ending and Phil’s icy blue eyes.

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