Campion: The Power of the Dog (2021)
Jane Campion’s latest film is an adaptation of The Power of the Dog, the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage. It’s a masterclass in storytelling, establishing character first, then situation and (right at the end, almost in retrospect) the story that ties it all together. Like The Piano, it’s driven by doubles, resonances and connections more than regular character development, divided into chapters that only increase the hermetic intensity of its world, which is restrained, but never quite minimal, inchoate, but never quite austere. From the beginning, you sense a deeply subsumed violence that only emerges fitfully, and incoherently – and by the time we understand it, in the climax, it’s already too late. It’s like watching a picture come into focus, only to reveal, at the end, that the point of focus wasn’t what you initially assumed it to be.
Of course, that’s not to say that there is no discernible narrative here. The action takes place in Montana, in 1925, at the tail end of the Old West, and revolves around a ranch, helmed by owners Phil and George Burbank, played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons respectively. Early on, Phil courts, and then marries, Rose Gordon, a widow, played by Kirsten Dunst, who runs the local town’s main eating house. However, Phil resents Rose being brought back to their ranch, especially because he has taken a disliking to her effeminate son, Pete, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee. Their evolving relationships unfold over several years, against the vast backdrop of Montana as it develops and urbanises in the face of modernity.
From the outset, it’s clear that The Power of the Dog is especially indebted to The Piano – perhaps more than any other film in Campion’s career. Like The Piano, this is a film about the frontier, and a landscape film, although the blue-green palettes of New Zealand have been replaced with cinematographer Ari Wegner’s warm, parched hues. Images of pianos abound too. We first meet Pete cutting note-like grooves in a sheet of paper as a piano plays dissonantly in the background. When George brings Rose home, he expects her to learn the piano as part of her comportment as his wife, while Phil expresses his hostility by mimicking Rose on the banjo whenever she tries to play. For Rose, unlike Ada, is not a natural at the piano – she only worked as a cinema player before arriving at the ranch and, when the time comes to play for George’s close circle of friends, she finds herself unable to muster one note.
Yet Rose’s backdrop in cinema piano playing suggests that these piano motifs, and their links to The Piano, are integral to the unique vision of The Power of the Dog. Above all, these two films share a certain kind of silence, a mute longing that emerges when the music dies away. In The Piano it belongs to Ada, an elective mute, whereas in The Power of the Dog, it gathers around Phil, and the peculiar rage that his brother’s marriage inspires in him. This rage textures the entire film, and becomes one with the exquisite textures that Campion sets up from the start. We see these textures in the beautiful tactility with which Pete cuts and places paper flowers on his father’s grave, and we hear it in the finely plucked guitar score, ebbing and cresting in mellifluous waves, and reverberating across vast distances, like a more emphatic articulation of silence, or a negative noise that allows the silence around it to speak.
As with The Piano, this fugitive silence, and this sense of something subsumed in the shadows, produces a distinct lexicon of facial expressions. In place of Ada’s visual demands, overt and unreadable in the same instant, we have a paucity of human faces here, since the characters are typically silhouetted by gaslight, candles and horizons, when they’re not shadowed by intimate close-ups. Phil, in particular, often turns to animals to express something that can’t quite make it to his face. He beats one of his horses when he finds out George and Rose are engaged, he retreats from the sound of their wedding night to polish his saddle, and he takes his later frustrations out in a brutal castration scene. At times, Phil also treats himself like an animal, finding solace in a private creek where he rubs himself with mud, like a bathing horse.
In a more traditional Western, we might situate these opaque exchanges within the broader scheme of lineage and family. Yet the film grows more diffuse, on these two fronts, as it proceeds. At first, it seems like Rose and Pete could be siblings – it’s a bit of a surprise to learn that they’re mother and son. Similarly, we assume that Phil and George’s parents are dead, since they never mention them – until they do, all of a sudden, out of nowhere, as soon as Phil marries Rose, as if parents only properly existed to those who marry and become parents in turn. Early on, it seems like Phil and George came from nothing, and built their ranch from the ground up, so it’s equally surprising to discover that their parents are very wealthy and well-connected, rich enough to send Phil to Yale, where he was Phi Kappa Beta for Classics.
The film is similarly oblique when it comes to its situation and timeframe. Just as Phil and George suddenly turn out to be embedded in a broader network of wealth and education, the ranch is not as isolated as it seems either. During the first chapter, it feels like we’re in for a case study in Western isolationism, not unlike some of the more austere moments in There Will Be Blood. Yet the ranch modernises, over time, like everything else. In one scene, Rose plays on a makeshift tennis court; in another scene, George reflects on the need to dig up the local graveyard to make way for a new highway. Yet this sense of progress, of futurity, seems to pass Phil by, like the existence of his parents – and not simply because he’s old-fashioned.
Instead, the future seems to be beyond Phil’s grasp – a category that he can’t process. By contrast, George’s hold on the future grows more generic and complacent as soon as he marries Rose. Early in the film, he seems like the free thinker, the intellectual propulsion of the story. But as time goes by, we suspect that he just sees Rose as a status symbol, a way of proving himself to his parents and their wealthy friends. Playing the piano is integral to this shared future, so it’s no surprise that Rose starts to decline as soon as she gets stage fright. As the film proceeds, Phil and George’s different claims to the future revolve around their relationship to Bronco Henry, a man who helped bring them up. At first, Bronco Henry seems to have been a surrogate father-figure, but that’s harder to believe when we learn that the brothers’ actual father is alive, well and wealthy. What is clear is that Phil centres his idea of the future around Bronco Henry, while George has all but forgotten him in the opening scene, when Phil reminds him it’s twenty-five years since they met him. George entirely forgets him after his marriage, which (by contrast) drives Phil straight back into Bronco Billy’s wisdom.
This point in the film reminded me of Laleen Jayamanne’s reading of The Piano. In Toward Cinema and Its Double, Jayamanne describes The Piano as an act of post-colonial mimesis. Whereas colonial mimesis involves colonised subjects being forced to mimic their colonisers, post-colonial mimesis involves a more fluid exchange of positions, postures and textures. In The Power of the Dog, Phil often seems to be searching for this exchange, this post-colonial mimesis, to articulate something that remain unavailable to him within the lexicon of settler colonialism. Since there are no First Nations people around, he has to content himself with mirroring the landscape, ritualistically covering himself with water and mud, before rubbing himself down sensuously with a sheet – and this ushers in the great revelation of the story.
During one of these scenes, Pete inchoately seeks out Phil. We never find out why he looks for Phil, or how he knows to follow Phil to this secluded part of the creek, which appears to be held secret from everyone else at the ranch. Instead, he’s just drawn to him, mirroring an early scene that takes place after Phil and George dine at Rose’s restaurant, and Phil mocks Pete for being a sissy. In this earlier scene, Phil works his way through the ranch, calling out tentatively for his brother. Yet the way Campion shoots it makes it feel as if Phil is working his way back to Pete, searching for Pete behind the scenes, after the fact, until he eventually clambers into bed, and wakes up beside his brother the next morning – the only time we see the two men sharing a bed. When I watched this scene, I immediately assumed, for reasons I couldn’t quite articulate – perhaps the fugitive nature of the searching and calling – that Phil was indeed craving Pete. However, I dismissed it – I thought I was reading too much into it.
Yet this later scene confirmed my early suspicions, not just because of what Pete finds, but because his inchoate cruising so precisely recalls Phil’s own. As he arrives at the river, Pete comes across Phil’s secret shack, which contains a series of magazines, all featuring muscled men – and one man in particular, named Bronco Henry. From there, Pete makes his way to the water, where he finds Phil engaged in what now feels like an autoerotic ritual, a way of approximating the touch and body heat of other men, before Phil chases him back to the house, and into the calm sublimation of George and Rose’s marriage and domestic “serenity.”
Finally, we have a way to understand Phil – as a closeted gay man living at the end of the Old West. We also have a way to understand the film’s continuous displacement of family ties in favour of the looming presence of Bronco Henry, who becomes a figure for a different kind of queer kinship and parenthood. It turns out that Phil was Pete’s age when he first met Bronco Henry, and that he sees, in Pete, a way to pass down the wisdom that Bronco Henry provided him. In other words, he sees, through Pete, a possibility for queer fatherhood, a way of inhabiting the future, and providing for the future, despite not being able to aspire to the married life his brother adopts so easily. This connection is all the more potent in that Pete’s own father is dead, so from this point Pete starts to drift away from Rose, as the last link to his father, and spends time with Phil, who coaxes out his first conversation about his father.
Over the third act, and through this queer kinship, we realise how tactitly, and almost unconsciously, Phil crafts his ranching world as a series of homoerotic tableau. He’s always surrounded by men, cords and whips, set against a vista of horse flanks that ripple and bristle with vivid musculature. He also revels in dirt, refusing to wash when his parents to visit to celebrate George and Rose’s wedding. This dirt now takes on a new valency, like the mud he rubs on himself, since it’s his way of keeping other men close, of holding the connective tissue of male camaraderie close to his skin, like his symbiosis with the horses he rides and tames. Since it depends so much upon the iconography of horses and ranching, Phil’s homoerotic desire is sublimated deep into the colonial gaze. He first flirts with Pete by telling him that Lewis and Clark’s expedition took in the boundaries of his property, suggesting that they both set out and “finish off those trails together” in loving tribute to the “real men” of the old west.
In a provocative proposition, then, Phil equates his homoerotic desire with completing the colonial project – finishing what Lewis and Clark started. Yet this is at odds with the film’s longing for a post-colonial mimesis that will yield greater and more inclusive forms of kinship. Phil feels this bind too, alternating between a kind of queer colonialism, in which he passes down colonial “knowledge” to an erotic admirer, and a more expansive understanding of kinship. He glimpses this kinship whenever he gazes up at the mountains, where he sees the shape of a dog’s head. Nobody else can see this shape, until Pete, who sees it immediately, suggesting that queerness can offset the colonial project, establish a more post-colonial mimesis, under the right conditions, not unlike Baines’ rapport with queer Maori in The Piano.
During the last part of The Power of the Dog, Phil is torn between these two possibilities – between seeing the dog as a dynamic frontier, and containing the frontier as a colonist. While his camping trip with Pete takes them further towards the dog, and deeper into this vision, it also comes with a whole heap of colonial wisdom about riding, roping and ranching. Like Bronco Henry, Phil, and now Pete, started riding late, so there’s something performative about all the ranch talk, which feels like a way of deflecting the power of the dog, and the potency of that post-colonial possibility. Increasingly, Phil expresses this as a tension between looking and ranching, and the dual legacies of both, confiding in Pete that Bronco Henry taught him “everything I knew about riding” and “to use my eyes in ways other people can’t.”
This tension reaches its crisis in the one encounter with First Nations people in the film, late in the third act. While Phil and Pete are up in the mountains, a displaced Indian, Edward Nappo, played by Adam Beach, comes by the ranch, and asks to buy some hides. At first, Rose refuses, because she knows that Phil doesn’t like to trade with Indians. However, when Nappo leaves, she changes her mind, and runs after him, eventually exchanging the hides for a pair of leather gloves. She reasons to herself that Phil was always going to burn the hides anyway – and this is true. When Pete comes home, he confronts Rose in a burning rage and, while George defends her, both men see her decision to sell the hides as proof of a hysterical mind.
In this scene, we realise that Phil’s homoerotic sublimation depends on conspicuous waste – on the sheer excess of having enough hides to burn. This is partly a security measure, a way of reminding himself that he will always have enough ranching machismo to fall back upon in lieu of real erotic exchanges with other men. But it’s also a way of rejecting the broader homoerotic world that he sees in the dog, and in the possibility of a post-colonial approach to sexual desire. Burning the pelts becomes a way of repressing the kinds of queer kinship we saw in The Piano, even or especially as Nappo’s price – a pair of gloves, made from hides – show that this exchange with First Nations people can be immediately enriching and remunerative. Figuratively, Nappo offers to take Phil’s undifferentiated homoerotic desire, and recraft it into something beautiful, something that is neither quite European nor Indian, not quite natural or unnatural, like Ada’s prosthetic finger in the closing scenes of The Piano.
However, Phil can never accept this exchange – and this refusal, or inability, shapes the closing scenes of the film, for all the main characters. Since Rose initiates this moment of post-colonial exchange, she retreats to a tragic muteness when it shuts down, like a vision of Ada without Baines, Flora, or her piano to begin with. Dunst is wonderful at evoking an empathy so exquisite that it hurts her, and hurts to watch. Here, that empathy hovers over her like a post-colonial possibility that is never realised – a fleeting exchange that’s swallowed up as soon as it’s offered, leaving what Thomas Hardy called “a general drama of pain” in its place. In these final scenes, Rose’s pain becomes bigger than her, transferring to George and, finally, to Phil, who is too deep into the situation to articulate it as affectively or as directly as Rose.
Instead, Phil tries to recreate this post-colonial exchange without the post-colonial element, by using the remaining hides for a different kind of exchange with Pete. During the first part of the film, Pete is away at medical school, and when he returns, he spends most of the second act dissecting animals. Pete discards the hide when he examines viscera, and Phil hoards the hide when he kills horses, so the two make a natural pairing for a while, pooling their different parts of the animal to create a new kind of animal that exists as a surface for their queer communion. Campion cuts between their first physical contact – sharing cigarettes, cradling each other – and their horses caressing in silence, as the granular details of flank and rump cohere into a new shared body, part horse, part human, and part homoerotic. It’s at this moment that Phil opens up about the time Bronco Henry saved his life, on a freezing night, by lying “body to body in a bedroom” and “falling off to sleep that way.” This prompts one question from Pete, a question that crystallises the emergent narrative in one word: “Naked?”
This question ushers in an ellipsis that is even more disorienting in that Campion chooses not to shift to a new chapter for the final part of the film. When we next see Phil, he’s disoriented, unsteady on his feet, with a scar on his hand. A few minutes later, he’s dressed up in a suit, shaved and cleaned for the first time, as if trying to pass for straight now that he’s discovered himself as a queer father-figure. A few minutes after that, he’s dead, and from there we shift to the funeral, before discovering, cursorily, that he died from anthrax, due to an infected carcass that Pete deliberately handed to him. At the very moment at which Phil and Pete seemed set to turn the post-colonial exchange in on themselves, and mediate it through the colonial iconography of ranching, it proved deadly. At the very moment when Phil’s newfound queer mission prompted him to pass for a colonist as never before, he was reminded, in the most emphatic manner, that this queer project could never exist without a post-colonial exchange.
This, then, is the final message of The Power of the Dog – and it’s a profound message from a New Zealand director. The colonial project of gender, as Sandy O’Sullivan has described it, dictates that Phil’s queerness was always going to prevent him passing as a colonist – or kill him in the process, since the two amount to the same thing. Through and within his queerness, he glimpses the horizon as something more than a boundary to colonialism, and yearns for it as a dynamically permeable membrane that always seems on the verge of revealing a new kind of post-colonial synergy. But his death leaves Pete to contend with that legacy – and the audience as well. In the haunting final scene, Pete, who doesn’t attend the funeral, looks out an upstairs window at George and Rose, who have just returned from it. They embrace in warm lamplight and, from a distance, the colonial project seems complete.
Yet Pete’s posture here is profoundly ambivalent. On the one hand, he’s fondling the whip that Phil made for him, as if already subsuming queerness into colonialism, trying to imagine the next Bronco Henry he can find, to hand down the colonial wisdom of the West as homoerotic exchange. At the same time, this is the same deliberate hand movement he demonstrated while setting up Phil’s death. Some critics have read Pete’s murder of Phil as a way of restoring his mother’s harmony, but I felt this last scene was too off-centre and destabilised for this. Rose’s trauma stemmed from her husband’s neglect and eventual disinterest, rather than her brother-in-law’s bullying.
As a result, I saw Pete’s actions as a way of disavowing his connection with Phil, and the lineage of Bronco Henry, while trying to acclimatise himself with a heterosexual order that very pointedly excludes him in this final scene, precisely because of the way Rose and George have to remove him to the distance of a spectator to restore their union. And the film cuts at the subliminal moment when Pete moves away from the window, unable to quite commune with his mother and father-in-law, in search, suddenly, of his own line of flight. In its subliminal fusion of stasis and movement, this cut mirrors the internal dynamic of the dog, as Campion enacts the post-colonial horizon that Phil yearns for and can never reach, but that Pete might just embrace.
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