Throughout her filmmaking career, Jane Campion has always examined the theme of societal repression and its effects on an individual, whether it be through the lens of sexuality or psychological issues. While her previous films focused on female characters and their experiences, Campion switches to the male perspective with her staggeringly powerful film “The Power of the Dog” (2021). The film which “The Power of the Dog” most resembles is Campion’s “The Piano,” and like that film it deals with a protagonist who learns to repress his true nature due to the prejudices and expectations of his wider society. Stylistically and thematically, “The Power of the Dog” serves as a sort of culmination of Campion’s previous films.
Based on the novel by Thomas Savage, “The Power of the Dog” deconstructs the typically hyper masculine genre of the Western through the story of the ranch owner Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), and his volatile relationship with his brother George (Jesse Plemons). Their already tense partnership, both on a personal family level and on a professional level as owners of a cattle ranch, deteriorates further when George marries the widow Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) and moves her and her sexually ambiguous son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) into the ranch. Phil’s straight alpha male exterior starts to crumble as he develops feelings for Peter, turning “The Power of the Dog” from a Western into a sort of Southern gothic doomed romance.
Like the character of Phil, “The Power of the Dog” hides much of its deeper intentions buried beneath the surface, which has frustrated some viewers who felt that the film’s plot mechanisms and character motivations weren’t easily discernible. However, this more subtle method of filmmaking is a trademark of Campion herself, whose films require repeated viewings to uncover the complex layers within. Much of the action in “The Power of the Dog” is implied and not shown, and characters speak in hushed tones and cryptic statements, hiding their true intentions from the audience and each other. This is very much reflective of Phil himself, as he has to repress his true nature and emotions and instead adopt an alpha male persona of a straight male cattle ranch owner. Thus, the opaque style of “The Power of the Dog” which has left many puzzled is a direct reflection of Campion’s wider theme of societal repression against sexual expression.
Oftentimes in Campion’s films, from “The Piano” to “An Angel At My Table,” her characters live repressed lives, unable to express themselves to the wider society. It isn’t until they encounter the passion of love and/or sexual attraction that Campion’s characters erupt into both rapturous pleasure and uncontrollable violence. In “The Power of the Dog,” the character of Phil is never fully able to experience his true inner desires, even when he is given the opportunity to when he meets Peter. With the character of Phil, Campion is in a sense deconstructing the concept of the hyper masculine cowboy figure so prevalent in Westerns. In one particularly sardonic scene, Phil literally castrates a male cow, which foreshadows the sort of symbolic castration of Phil’s masculinity that his attraction towards Peter brings out.
So, with its story of a cowboy unable to come out of the closet, is Campion making a statement against the “toxic masculinity” of Westerns? Fortunately, Campion’s film is not that simplistic, as it also embraces many of the cinematic tropes of Westerns, from the vast, open ended vistas of the frontier landscape (with New Zealand standing in for 1920’s Montana), to the power struggles between men to tame each other and their environment, and onto the themes of masculine pride and ownership as revealed in Phil and George’s complex relationship. For Campion, masculinity isn’t something to be ridiculed or destroyed; rather, with “The Power of the Dog’s” forbidden love story, Campion is suggesting that perhaps the definition of masculinity in Westerns and cinema in general can be more complex and open-ended.
In a modern cinematic landscape where so many films are easily consumed and enjoyed like fast food but just as quickly forgotten, “The Power of the Dog” is a film that lingers long in the mind after one viewing. Campion has crafted a Western, like Clint Eastwood’s “Cry Macho,” that both questions widely accepted notions of masculinity, while also presenting her male characters with traditional western thematic concerns. With allusions to Western auteurs like John Ford and Sergio Leone, Campion is celebrating the Western as cinematic art, while also uncovering rarely explored concepts inherent within the genre. “The Power of the Dog” is a modern day classic that asks us to question why we enjoy certain genres, while presenting us with a new perspective that may open up some previously closed eyes.
- Film Review: The Power of the Dog