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You can tell the truth. That I stink, and I love it.

The Power of the Dog
(2021)

(SPOILERS) Toxic masculinity, ahoy! Obviously, none of us can get enough of this subject, such that even the tritest iteration thereof will duly win all the plaudits going. Which, for all that it’s handsomely mounted, admirably directed and – well, mostly – commendably performed, The Power of the Dog, adapted from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, is. At least, until it transforms in to The Young Poisoner’s Handbook during the last twenty minutes. James Campion’s likely Best Picture Oscar contender would surely have been more enthusiastically received (from me, I mean) if it had switched perspective, charting the development of a young sociopath rather than the shamefully concealed sexuality of its sadistic protagonist and those satellites he torpedoes into his pit of disgust.

Of course, then the picture’s twist – I call it that, because every stage of The Power of the Dog’s plot is otherwise grimly, suffocatingly predictable - wouldn’t have the cachet it does, but I’m unconvinced the preceding hundred or so minutes makes it worth the wait. There are significant earlier intimations, of course, and some have suggested (as some always do) that the twist is obvious a mile off. In which case, well done yous. There’s the admiration of Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) at the ease with which young Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) dispatches a rabbit, and the earlier incident with another, for the purposes of “study”, which makes it pretty clear that Peter’s father’s reaction to his remorseless character – “You, too strong?” breathes Phil in disbelief – is substantiated.

But we’re generally too overpowered by rancher Phil’s poisonous atmosphere to get a chance with the other characters. There’s Phil’s brother George (Jesse Plemons) and his stoical passivity (initially sensitive to his new wife, but absolutely clueless about facing truths). And Kirsten Dunst is superb as Rose, but making her a sous who needs her psycho son to recuperate her isn’t the most forward leading of characterisations (if we’re looking for that in a film that foregrounds the importance of progressivism while making its gay characters entirely unappetising).

Your mileage may vary for this kind of fare, but for me the relentless bleakness of The Power of the Dog is not its own reward – The Day of the Locust came to mind as a similarly irretrievable wallow in despondency – and certainly scant justification for whatever nuggets of insight it nurses over fully and freely expressing one’s sexuality. The picture spends time with the other characters, most notably Dunst’s Rose, whom Phil takes an instant dislike to when his brother “Fatso” marries her. But it does so only so as to painstakingly trace her misery.

There’s a sweet scene early on when George dons an apron and serves Rose’s customers, but that aside, he is peculiarly inert and removed from any drama. Indeed, the characters move about as if ghosts to each other; we’re privy only to their distant interactions, from Phil mocking Rose’s piano practice with perfectly improvised banjo playing – the entire sequence of practice and recital is torturously indulged by Campion – to the cowhands jeering at fey Peter. We aren’t privy to any intimate contact between George and Rose beyond their first night at the ranch, so they may as well be separated, and the only noteworthy conversation he has with Phil is asking him to wash; an altercation is brewing with Phil that never comes, but rather than sustaining tension due to Phil’s dread shadow, the effect is one of unmoderated, cumulative ennui.

And that’s despite a somewhat cartoonish quality fostered by the visual broad strokes and extreme behaviour. The two unlikely brothers brought to mind nothing so much as Fattypuffs and Thinifers (a children’s novel set in the Hollow Earth); apparently Paul Dano was in initial talks to play George (so clearly, the fatso insult was one sensitively developed especially for Plemons). Smit-McPhee appears to be trotting out another gangly teenage type at first (see Slow West), but ends up closer to his capable youth of Alpha; it’s a deceptively assured performance, especially when we see – through a look, a gesture, an insight – that he has the upper hand on the predator.

Cumberbatch conveys pretence at wild-man masculinity, but his entire bearing and posture and manner are soperformative, there’s never any doubt this is an act; are we supposed to think Phil’s a believable rugged cowboy at any point (rather than a slumming-it Harvard educated closeted homosexual all the rugged cowhands should be able to spot a mile off)? Because if so, he fails entirely. Meaning, Cumberbatch is a natural at a nasty specimen, but not at essaying a gay Jack Palance. More than this, the facile nature of Phil’s dark secret – mentor Bronco Henry got him all dirty, so to speak, and he has stayed all dirty (“Have you ever tried the house bath, Phil?”) – simply isn’t enough to hang the picture’s drama on, since it’s evident from nigh on the first scene.

Somewhere along the line, I presume Campion decided to hone down her material; obviously not at Netflix’s behest, since they’re the home of filmmaker indulgence. At any rate, I can’t otherwise explain Thomasin McKenzie – who was only just the lead in Last Night in Soho – appearing for at most a couple of minutes of screen time.

Cumberbatch commented of his director “She’s got such an amazing sensitivity to toxic masculinity in one hand, a woman’s distress in another” Even though the woman in question needs her son to save her. Benedict is clearly more versed in woke buzzwords than a few years back, when he made a faux pas sure to return to the conversation should he become a Best Actor contender.

As for Jane, yes, she’s obviously been charting toxic men for a while now, and The Power of the Dog comes closer to The Piano – still her abiding triumph – as an admittedly successful depiction of a milieu, only without that film’s layers and room for warmth. I hadn’t realised it’s so long since she directed (a feature). I didn’t see Bright Star, making the rather sorry In the Cut my last, way back in 2003 (I had in my head that she was responsible for the highly likeable The Dressmaker, but that was Jocelyn Moorhouse; antipodean generalisations on my part, I’m afraid).

The Power of the Dog carries a readily identifiable and vouchable thematic quality, it’s well made and performed with conviction. All of which are more than enough to ensure its place at the Oscar table (it’s already polishing off critics’ choices as a preliminary). What it is not, however, is rewarding, regardless of how much awarding it garners.


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