From the moment it premiered at the Venice Film Festival last September, Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” has been a divisive film. Yet the divisiveness has had an element of being foggy and vague, hard to get a fix on. In part, that’s because those who command the media megaphone, and are loudest in the debate, have mostly showered the movie with acclaim. “The Power of the Dog” received countless rave reviews and, along with “Drive My Car,” it dominated 10 Best lists and year-end critics groups’ awards. It is one of the most celebrated films of the year, and that perception is reflected in the fact that it received 12 Oscar nominations — and that many prognosticators, at least until recently, thought it would win.
Yet from the moment it premiered on Netflix (and in a small number of theaters) on Nov. 17, I think it’s no exaggeration to say that there has been an omnipresent grumbling about “The Power of the Dog.” A great many of the people who’ve seen it do not care for it. As one of its few critical detractors (though since the days of “Sweetie” and “The Piano,” I’ve been a Jane Campion believer), let me say right up front that I find “The Power of the Dog” to be a film of formidable mood, fascination, and skill. It’s clearly the work of a master filmmaker, one who carries you along with every shot, every showdown, every tautly exacting moment of psychological frisson. Yet emotionally and thematically, I found the movie to be at once thin and overly programmatic, a kind of abstract meditation on the primal myth of cowboy masculinity. That’s why I gave it a mixed review.
At the Oscars on Sunday, if “The Power of the Dog” loses the best picture race to “CODA,” as most awards season watchers now believe will happen, it won’t be the first time that a high-end movie exalted by critics loses the Academy Award to a movie that’s embraced as more of a heart-in-the-throat crowd-pleaser. That’s been the story of the Oscars a number of times over the past three decades: “Forrest Gump” over “Pulp Fiction,” “The King’s Speech” over “The Social Network,” “Green Book” over “Roma.” (You could argue that it’s been the story of the Oscars for much of its nearly 100-year history.) But even in those three relatively recent infamous Oscar duels, I don’t think there has ever been this much grousing about the high-end option. Even before the late-game surge of “CODA,” many moviegoers have had a stone in their shoe about “The Power of the Dog.” The drama of that antipathy was enough to make me ask, all over again: What is it about this movie that doesn’t connect for people?
Here’s what we keep hearing, in media reports and on comment boards and through the Oscar gossip grapevine. People think that “The Power of the Dog” is slow. They think it’s cold. They think it’s dark, arty and depressing. They think it’s not very involving. They think its final section is confusing.
A lot of that criticism bothers me. I love many movies that are slow, that are quiet in their drama, that are considered, in some circles, to be cold or dark. I’ve never been someone who finds “dark” movies “depressing.” That, to me, is the demagogic language of market testing. I don’t think these sorts of complaints fully explain why a lot of people dislike “The Power of the Dog” — and they certainly don’t explain my own mixed feelings about it.
So I went to back see the movie again, to sink once more into its world, to maybe respond a little more to what it’s doing — and, yes, to see how the final section of it would play differently now that I know what happens at the end. Here’s my report, with a spoiler warning: If you don’t want the ending of “The Power of the Dog” revealed in detail, stop reading.
Seeing that last 45 minutes of the film a second time proved to be quite a paradoxical eye-opener. Originally, I admit I scratched my head a bit. I was working to figure out what was going on; in a way, that process can throw you out of a movie. This time, what I saw is that it’s all presented, in its teasingly oblique way, with perfect coherence. But I got what threw me the first time.
When you watch “The Power of the Dog,” it’s hard not to view Benedict Cumberbatch’s mean, sneering, haughty, diabolically calculated and sexually closeted rancher Phil Burbank as a predator who’s going to have his (dark) day. Right after he’s discovered taking one of his nude baptismal swims in the pond by Kodi Smit-McPhee’s spooky-eyed wallflower Peter Gordon, why does Phil suddenly decide to take Peter under his wing and befriend him? I assumed that on some level he was “grooming” him, looking for the same kind of eroticized version of a Western mentor/protégé relationship with his young charge that Phil himself had with Bronco Henry. The first time I saw the film, I was waiting for that situation to come to a momentous climax, and to have the truth of Phil’s identity unfurled, with great drama, before us.
But, of course, that’s not what happens. Instead, during the film’s last section, what we’re watching is a murder committed in slow motion. Phil may be a calculating dude, but Smit-McPhee’s Peter is even more calculating. He’s the one committing the murder, and he lures Phil in and executes his plan as sleekly as the killer in a Patricia Highsmith novel.
Here are two things that threw me the first time. The shot that reveals the rawhide being contaminated with anthrax (which is, of course, the murder weapon) shows that rawhide submerged in water. This is confusing because, not being a chemist, I assumed, naively, that water would wash rawhide clean. The other misleading scene is the one, earlier on, where we discover Peter dissecting a bunny rabbit in his bedroom. That strikes us as a bit weird, and we may think: Is he some kind of budding mad scientist?
But no. He’s simply an aspiring medical student trying to learn anatomy and doing a very ambitious job of it. As you watch the last part of “The Power of the Dog,” Smit-McPhee’s masterly performance comes to fruition, and what we see is that Peter is an ace spy and manipulator who knows just how to twist and play off Phil’s buried desires. When he asks Phil if he and Bronco Henry, struggling to keep each other warm, were “naked” under a blanket, the mock-innocence of how Peter says that word is a sly joke to the audience. A lot of viewers seem to assume that Peter is gay. In that first dinner scene, he speaks with a stereotypical lisp, which Phil, in his leering homophobia, mocks. But if we leave aside our own cliché prejudices, there is actually no evidence in “The Power of the Dog” that Peter is gay. He is simply a furtive and devoted young man, with the physique of a sunflower, who is attempting to rescue his mother from her pathological and abusive sicko of a brother-in-law.
This leads me to what I now believe is the underlying problem with “The Power of the Dog.” The movie is a Western (can people please stop grousing about the fact that it was shot in New Zealand — what an insane criticism!) and it presents itself as having a kind of 1970s “revisionist” Western vibe. Those movies, like “The Wild Bunch” and “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” and “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” were often slow and dark (darkness was their middle name), but they thrived on existing, dramatically, in a kind of suspenseful gray zone. We were watching gun-toting Western heroes, in Peckinpah films, who were grizzled anti-heroes, and we were watching good men, like Warren Beatty’s John McCabe, who in their very nobility were doomed to die. We were seeing the mythology of the West at once reconfigured and undercut. And the drama all pivoted around a fantastic moral ambiguity. Every scene was charged, because of how much the old simplistic morality of the age of John Wayne had fallen away.
“The Power of the Dog” appears to be that kind of movie. But, in fact, it is not. It’s a modernist Western, with its haunting Jonny Greenwood score, that is, at heart, a movie of such cleanly delineated, black-hat/white-hat morality that when you cut to the core of it, the movie is just as simplistic as the old John Wayne world it seeks to overthrow. Yes, it’s questioning the primacy of those images of masculinity, which is a valid thing to do. But just look at the film’s drama. Phil, as superb an actor as Benedict Cumberbatch is, is a jaunty bad guy: a bully, an oppressor, a racist who’d rather eat the profits from his cow skins than sell them to Native Americans, and a man who believes that his brother’s marriage has brought an “intruder” into his stoic male oasis of dirt and brute strength and Bronco Henry memories. Phil, simply put, is a threat and an evil pest, which is why Peter cannot abide his cruelty.
And Peter? Why, he’s the golden gunslinger who comes into town to face off against the villain and kill him dead, leaving the world a better place. True, he doesn’t use a gun; his bullets are made of anthrax. And the something-is-happening-but-you-don’t-know-what-it-is obliqueness of the final section is Campion’s way of palming off old-fashioned one-clean-shot morality as something murky and complex. But Peter, as the film presents it, is fully justified in his audacious act of vengeful homicide. Phil goes to his grave as a menace to society whose malevolence has now been stilled.
And yet that isn’t what I want, or expect, from a great contemporary Western. You could say “The Power of the Dog” treats Phil with a glimmer of understanding in the scenes where he’s interfacing with Bronco Henry’s handkerchief. But what would have made it a more potent movie is if we could have seen Phil’s torment laid bare, so that he became a borderline sympathetic head case. Or if we could have seen Peter’s attack on him as more charged with ambivalence. The real dramatic secret of “The Power of the Dog” is that it’s as morally simple and unambiguous as a storybook fable. Phil is the walking incarnation of the mythic force of homophobia, which Peter (symbolically) destroys. That’s a happy ending. But it’s also why “The Power of the Dog” strikes so many of its viewers as not being all that rich or that interesting. What you’re watching isn’t a drama of wrenching moral cataclysm. It’s an artfully staged stacked deck.