After the last frames of Jane Campion’s universally acclaimed, award season-favoured film The Power of the Dog leave you, few — if anyone at all — may wonder: how would Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA, as he’s called) have made this story? Awash with slowly inclining high drama that overflows in a heartbeat-pumping finale through the extremity of his characters’ actions?

You wonder, because no such thing happens here.

PTA, one of the best filmmakers of this generation — he directed Boogie Nights, Magnolia, The Phantom Thread and There Will Be Blood, and his share of pitfalls Inherent Vice and The Master — has his own tantalisingly titled masterpiece, Licorice Pizza, headlining the award season (the film holds a ‘must-see’ badge and an aggregate rating of 89 percent at the review site Metacritic).

If word has it right, The Power of the Dog may just outflank the competition because, contrary to this writer’s wonderings of other directors’ takes on the material, this film works because of Campion’s unshakable employment of restraint, apparency and inscrutability — with the last, trumping the first two facets.

A brooding melodrama about repressed sexuality, envy, desirousness, grief and love, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog is a brilliant if aggravating experience

It takes a while, and some brain cells-exhausting rumination, for the ending to click — the New York Times published a piece The Power of the Dog: About that Ending, to shed some light on the climax, without shedding any light on it at all (the article itself is anticlimactic, akin to the ending) — but when the ‘click’ clicks, the entire film falls into place; every nuance, every cinematic and thematic decision, every act of malevolence, every inspired instance just screams a lurid, dog-tired sigh of relief.

The setting is 1925 and the dusty plains of Montana, where two well-heeled brothers, Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch, a shoe-in for nominations, and Jesse Plemons), run a cattle business in what may well be nowhere (there are, maybe, two buildings in the vast expanse).

Even though Phil and George share a bedroom, their individual dispositions reflect their lifestyle and temperamental choices. The brothers are as opposite as East and West: one, a rugged, smelly, un-bathing, immediately objectionable, ornery alpha-male cowboy; the other a demurely mannered, urbanely dressed rancher. They are both well read (the references to literature come later, unfolding as its own pocket-sized mystery), but doggone it, if one can put their finger on it in the beginning.

Phil has the kind of strange love that compels unremitting bullying. He, largely dependent on George’s company as if the brother is his lifeline, calls him Fatso in a mix of love and hate. George, rather than rebuke, grits his teeth in agony in a flicker of expression and turns his head away from confrontation. The manner of his ignoring is a broad hint that George may have retaliated — if largely unsuccessfully — in his youth.

You can almost see the images of these two young brothers, badgering and then brawling, in your head — and the images will very well stay in your head, because Campion is averse to the practice of intercuts into the past.

The story is set in the here and the now, and here it will stay, for here is where the drama lies.

George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a meek widow hotel owner who has an effeminate son named Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Peter paints butterflies, snips and crafts flowers out of music sheets (it’s a subtle hint at another plot point) and, later in the film, dissects bunny rabbits, presumably because he needs to practise anatomy for a career in medicine. This creepy tidbit is also a subtle hint, and a piece of a broader puzzle.

What’s quite apparent is Phil’s immediate disdain for Peter and Rose. It matters little — and is explained away even less — what sparks his spontaneous revulsion; it’s there because that is who he is. When Rose enters their house after marriage, the sensation of solitude is akin to that of a horror movie, with Phil being the evil spectre.

There is one other ghost in the narrative: a character named Bronco Henry, who passed away years before the story takes place.

Phil cites Henry’s all-cowboy masculinity at every given instance, and the perturbing omnipresence of these mentions pings one’s memory to Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain out of the blue.

Proulx’s novel, directed into the Oscar-winning film by Ang Lee, owes a debt to The Power of the Dog, originally written in 1967 by Thomas Savage (Proulx wrote the afterward for the 2001 republication of this novel). Brokeback was about the decades-spanning quiet romance of two hired hand cowboys from 1963; a similar revelation happens in The Power of the Dog.

Campion has been developing the film since 2017 (it had been in development for decades before) — and her awe and devotion to the story and the characters is hard to snub. It can be felt all over the place, in the production design, in the all-natural, at times artfully dark, lighting, in the vista-spanning cinematography of Montana’s hills (the location is actually New Zealand, for budget reasons), in the sheer authenticity of the performances, and in the edge of reasoning of the characters’ outlook and contempt.

Peculiarly, one can see the spectres of another film of Campion’s in The Power of the Dog: the Palm d’Or and Oscar-winning The Piano. Both films fix their gazes on a pitiless vindictive man, a sensitive one, and the single mother who marries one of them. The musical instrument the two women play is also the same. Rose, having lost practice, however, is less adept at the keys — and it leads to one magnificently chilly sequence in the film.

Contrary to expectations, Campion — who also wrote the film with skilled self-discipline for moderation and unhurried revelation of the plot, to the point that one might think there is no plot at all, until the very end — lets the antipathies simmer without boiling them over into physical brutality.

Until the parting shot of the film, it’s impossible to speculate where the story is going, or even what the title itself refers to (it’s a reference from the Bible, from the Book of Prayer; read the verses to better understand this film).

Don’t be fooled by its guise of an epic Western (I was). It is a brooding melodrama about repressed sexuality, envy and desirousness, grief and love. The Power of the Dog is a brilliant, if aggravating, experience.

The more one ponders, the better the film gets in hindsight. Perhaps one can fool themselves into rewatching the film to spot, classify and wonder at the insightfulness of their own deductions. Me…well, I’m going to wait a few years before giving it another try.

Streaming on Netflix, The Power of the Dog has scenes of brief nudity and is rated R. Don’t expect clarity, or sympathy, from this film

Published in Dawn, ICON, January 16th, 2022

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