By Marc S. Sanders
Don’t blame Jane Campion. Blame me.
The ending to The Power Of The Dog feels ambiguous, but writer and director Campion invites you to think and ponder. It also helps that I have a good friend who shed some light on how the film actually wrapped up. I’m grateful because I appreciated the picture even more. Ironically, my friend didn’t care for the movie.
Technically, Jane Campion directs an absolutely breathtaking film with majestic cinematography and art design of open Montana fields taking place in 1926. Tech work can only take me so far though, and I appreciated the four different perspectives of the headlining cast that includes Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee.
Cumberbatch is Phil, a cowboy relic of the Old West. He’s an expert horseman donned with spurs on his boots, and leather padding on the jeans along with the worn in staple cowboy hat. He also has a fearful and intimidating temper. Maybe that’s because his era is soon to be passed by and he’s not designed or updated for anything else. Plemons is George. Phil’s subdued, business wise brother who knows his way around their Montana ranch, and more importantly knows how to build connections that’ll provide fiscal and political support, while he drives his Ford buggy to get from one place to the next. Dunst is Rose, the artist of appetizing delicacies and designs who marries George. She manages the kitchen of her restaurant and can play piano; not exceptionally well but her love for the instrument is what matters. Her son is Peter, played by Smit-McPhee, a lanky and weak, yet book smart, young adult with his focus on the science of medicine. He aspires to be surgeon. So, as the 20th century is now over a quarter complete, these four individuals represent what once was, what is now, what is trending and what will become.
Campion sprinkles her film in more atmosphere than telling dialogue. The gist of the story is how Phil’s tormenting presence scares both Rose and Peter. A hair-raising scene occurs midway while Rose attempts to play a song on the piano, only to be drowned out by Phil’s cruel banjo interpretation from the top of the staircase. Cumberbatch is really scary here as the bear teasing the cub to poke him. Rose tries again and again to play only to be further interrupted by Phil. A banjo is an instrument of a bygone era, the Old West. The piano is the more sophisticated and elegant device to use now within the decorated designs of a reading room.
The future is also upon the characters. Young Peter purchases a pair of sneakers to wear; not exactly the most appropriate for a horse ranch, nor are his suppressed homosexual yearnings. Still, the future carries forth as he studies the latest in medicine and surgical practices, whether it is through dissection of a rabbit or studying the most up to date medical journals.
George is the symbol of transition. He was raised like his brother Phil to be a rancher, but he knows that time has passed. Currency, technology and longevity are necessary and it is not wise to remain stagnant in a time gone by. It’s practical to develop connections with the Governor of the state, to drive himself and Rose in a car as opposed to by horseback. To carry on the family name, it is also prudent he marries and builds a new generation.
I appreciated the subtle visuals and behaviors that Campion weaves into her adaptation from the novel by Thomas Savage. Over the course of two hours, I was always learning something new, whether it be about the characters or the period setting. Most telling is the fact that the past can not live in an updated future such as Phil with his suprising and deeply inhibited attraction to Peter. As well, the future is not going to adjust well to the past like when Peter is trying to learn horse and ranch handling from a teasingly cruel Phil while wearing a ridiculous cowboy hat, white sneakers, and factory tailored jeans. Furthermore, even if you’re only a frequent movie watcher, you likely are aware that Westerns would pit cowboys against Indians. Rose demonstrates with her talents for craft how Native Americans are appreciated in this still young new century. Phil and his ranchers would never imagine such relations to ever exist.
Our history is not comfortable with our eventual future, and our future can not fathom how we ever lived within our past.
Because these two worlds can never mesh in accordance with each other, a loss will have to be committed. In another storyteller’s hands, The Power Of The Dog, might have resulted in a gun shot, or a stabbing or an illness to eliminate what cannot survive. As well, long speeches of dialogue would spell out what must cease to continue and what must continue to flourish and go on. With Campion’s lens, and with Savage’s work, it works atmospherically, however. The environment of the Montana landscape along with life on a transitioning horse and cattle ranch serve the conflicting time passages and the characters who are relegated to a past, or a present, or a future.
Don’t watch The Power Of The Dog with expectations of simplicity or quotable dialogue. I value Campion’s approach to not spoon feed me. Rather, take in the visuals of the four main characters’ behaviors. Allow yourself to become more observant of the nature of how things end up. Powerfully speaking, Jane Campion shows that some people will work well together, while others will crave to blend effectively, and sadly some can never live within another environment or time period, much less someone else’s.
The Power Of The Dog offers a thought-provoking message of loss and reflection while gazing into what’s just beyond. It’s a very well-made film.