'The Power of the Dog' is about women's reflection on fragile masculinity

While 'The Piano' remains a haunting exploration of female desire, 'The Power of the Dog' is a long-delayed contemplation on masculinity from the female eye, both about repression and control

A still from the film
A still from the film

Namrata Joshi

The hallmark of Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog is a certain noiselessness with which the narrative tip toes along towards the culmination. But this calm and quiet and the measured flow are deceptive. What lies clammed up in the seeming tranquility is a tale about individuals and their liaisons that is awash with enormous turbulence.

This enigmatic contrariety that lies at the heart of The Power of the Dog also seemed to have spilled over into the real when the film deservedly won three Golden Globes this week—for the best motion picture (drama), the best director for Campion and best supporting actor for Kodi Smit-McPhee—and paradoxically brought a modicum of dignity to the awards that had lost in stature following charges of lack of diversity and transparency and ethical irregularities, topped by an event devoid of red carpet, stars, winners, acceptance speeches and, most of all, an audience.

Another contradiction that stared back was that the kingpin of the film—Benedict Cumberbatch—had to remain content without a rightful recognition for his performance that is marked by an admirable subtlety and piercing intensity.

The Power of Dog is an astute exploration of a Phil Burbank (played by Cumberbatch), a rough and rude rancher in Montana in 1925, living with his kind and calm brother George (Jessie Plemons) in a huge mansion that seems to have been cast adrift in a stark landscape and is framed by a range of hills at a distance. Forbidding than welcoming.

Apart from the brother, the other significant presence in life has been his mentor Bronco Henry. “Romulus and Remus and the wolf who raised us” is what comprises the world for Phil; no one else matters.

Things turn upside down when gentle George marries and brings home Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) who runs a diner in the neighbouring town and has a young son Peter (Smit-McPhee) from her previous marriage. Phil is convinced it’s not love but money that has motivated her to marry George.

The pent-up insecurity, resentment and jealousy within Phil manifests in the passive aggressive games he plays while humiliating Rose and the cruelty he heaps on Peter and his effeminate ways. His banjo strikes angry notes to drown out the tentative melodies of Rose’s piano and eventually turns an alcoholic out of her. Peter gets mocked as “Miss Nancy” for his lisp and the hobby of making paper flowers. “The boy needs to snap out of it and get human,” says Phil of Peter.

Campion broke the glass ceiling by becoming the first ever woman filmmaker to receive the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the second to be nominated for the best director Oscar, both for her 1993 film The Piano that remains one of the most haunting explorations of female desire. The Power of the Dog for me is a long-delayed companion piece to it—one of the most incisive contemplations on masculinity from the female eye view. Both are eventually all about repression and control.

With a woman cinematographer, Ari Wegner, as an ally, Campion does a lot with the Thomas Savage book that the film is based on. She casts a doubly fresh female gaze on one of the most “male” genres in cinema—the Western—owns and transforms it as a psychological character study. She creates some complex male characters and relationships as she goes about enquiring into the pathology of maleness.

'The Power of the Dog' is about women's reflection on fragile masculinity

There’s the brotherly affection that’s all about running a ranch as well as sharing a room at home. A kinship found in a young boy but one which pivots on making a man out of him; forcing him to ride a saddle, wear boots and not letting his mom make a sissy out of him. On the other hand, is the boy’s own strong mother fixation, the urge to be her saviour, help her and ensure happiness for her at any cost. The one who crafts roses out of paper can also dissect animals with ease.

Similarly, an otherwise volatile Phil, the epitome of toxic masculinity, could also be a tortured, tormented soul, a man who has not quite been in touch with himself and his own suppressed desires. One who has lost himself while living up to male expectations and ideals of behaviour. One in whom the male ego comes in the way of self-awareness and realisation.

Phil is a man who is brutal to world but also vulnerable deep within. He might be an expert at castrating bulls with bare hands and weaving rope from raw hide but then there is also a piece of cloth he clings on to, the hidden books on “physical culture” replete with male body that hold the key to another side that has been deliberately throttled and subdued.

Things move gently towards a quietly devastating finale, one that communicates a lot by saying very little, that quite fittingly implodes than explode.

The Power of the Dog, streaming on Netflix, is ultimately a tragedy about all that remains unresolved within the manliest men.

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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