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The Current Debate: The Obliqueness of Campion’s “The Power of the Dog”

Full of secrets and unanswered questions, Campion’s latest is a disquieting frontier tale. But is its obliqueness a double-edged sword?
Leonardo Goi
Based on a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog follows a couple of brothers in 1920s Montana. Foulmouthed misanthrope and alpha male Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) has been running a prosperous cattle farm with his brother George (Jesse Plemons) when his soft-spoken sibling decides to marry a local widow, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), forever upsetting the tight-knit fraternity. The psychological warfare Phil wages against Rose as she moves into the Burbanks’ mansion pales before the torments he reserves to her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). A gangly, bookish cherub helplessly lost around cows and cowboys, Peter turns into a kind of punching bag Phil and his hyena-like employees continually deride and humiliate. That is, until the boy strikes an unlikely friendship with his persecutor, a camaraderie that calls into question the sort of uber-virile persona Phil has projected through the years. 
Contemplative in pacing and elliptical in structure, The Power of the Dog blurs as much as it reveals: it’s a film that bristles with secrets and unanswered questions, where details that may seem peripheral to the plot end up accruing a life-or-death magnitude. “Because Campion plays her hand so slowly,”Adam Nayman observes at The Ringer, “The Power of the Dog keeps us off-balance as to the true nature of the tension; it’s the rare drama where it’s legitimately hard to know what’s coming next.”
But whatever the strength of the oblique narrative, Michael Scoular writes at In Review Online, that alone “can’t allay the questions Campion chooses not to address: Rose’s unsatisfied spiral, the relation of the two brothers, George’s would-be social ascension in 1920s Montana, all richly detailed and suggestive, then left to twist in the wind.” It’s not just that the film doesn’t untangle some of its most mysterious or elusive threads: it’s that these can feel, as Owen Gleiberman notes at Variety, like mosaic tesserae stitched together a little too neatly: 
In “The Power of the Dog,” the characters have secrets, buried motives, hidden drives, yet the filmmaker treats them all, in a certain way, like puzzle pieces, fitting them into a grand scheme that connects with the audience in an overly programmatic way. The film’s message is unassailable, but that isn’t the same thing as devastating, which is what “The Power of the Dog” wants to be. 
One may even argue, as Brianna Zigler does at Paste, that “there’s a certain predictability to the [film’s] trajectory, where the eventual comprehension of its characters ends up almost wanderingly obvious.” Indeed, 
…It doesn’t take especially astute observation to realize that a trail of breadcrumbs had been laid out since the film’s very beginning. From the castration of the bulls on the Burbank ranch, to Phil’s status as the black sheep of his respectable family, to the nature of the western landscape tied to Phil’s performance of masculinity, the subtext is so visually hamfisted that it remains subtextual only by virtue of it not being directly spoken out loud. 
To be sure, this alleged predictability isn’t a fault of the actors Campion’s recruited, but the way her film, as Joe Morgenstern suggests at The Wall Street Journal, “keeps telling us, almost ordering us, what to feel:” 
Insisting on the significance of its themes, the film dispenses one emotion at a time while it creates a pervasive atmosphere of dread. Yet there’s no air in the atmosphere, not much life in the brooding landscapes. […] All of it grows monotonous, mainly for reasons that concern the central character, and that afflict the superb actor who plays him. Phil isn’t a spontaneous human being so much as a looming, doomy abstraction in a drama that aspires, immodestly, to the inexorable progression of Greek tragedy. […] He’s a one-note protagonist who, despite Mr. Cumberbatch’s best efforts, commits the unpardonable sin of letting the audience get ahead of him. That’s not to say there aren’t intriguing twists and surprising developments, but the lesser among them are predictable and the best are drawn out to excruciating lengths. Some films seem discovered. “The Power of the Dog” feels calculated in every frame. 
At one level, one can see why this may be the case: the film unspools as a maze of domino tiles, where each secret unfurls the other in accordance with a grand design we only fully grasp at the end. But from here to argue that the film is all too predictable, monotonous, or even airless seems to me a bit of a stretch. That’s chiefly because, as per The Independent’s Geoffrey Macnab, “the fascination of The Power of the Dog lies in its ambiguity and its depth of characterization.” It’s the film’s evasiveness, its reticence to decipher and translate its most cryptic passages, that makes it such a riveting experience. After all, as Richard Lawson wonders at Vanity Fair, it can be tricky to tell what The Power of the Dog is even about— but this ambiguity is essential to the mood Campion elicits: 
If The Power of the Dog has any one big theme, it might simply be the tragedy, and beauty, of how inner lives wrestle with outward appearances and poses. Compromises are made, needs and desires sublimated, all to get on with the business of living. But Campion doesn’t drive any message or meaning home so much as she deftly, unnervingly captures a mood: of a hardscrabble past, of fear and loneliness, and of the invisible churns of lust and shame. While the core narrative is plenty compelling in all its creeping dread and curiosity, The Power of the Dog is not too concerned with being about any one thing. The film’s secrets are revealed while new ones bloom into being. 
Crucially, the obliqueness doesn’t just concern the plot, but the very genre the film should fall into. The Power of the Dog, Stephanie Zacharek notes at TIME, “works as a western, a thriller, a psychological study of masculinity gone awry;” part of its magic is to see Campion juggle with the different genres and subvert their tropes. In the words of BBC Culture’s Nicholas Barber
What's unique about The Power of the Dog is that it seems at first to be an epic Western, but it becomes a brooding gothic melodrama in which relationships shift and long-buried secrets surface. Its slow-burning psychological mysteries may frustrate some viewers. But others will be gripped by the way Campion twists the conventions of the American frontier drama: the fact that its jittery score is by Jonny Greenwood isn't the only thing it has in common with There Will Be Blood. 
It’s also difficult to tell where exactly it’ll take us. As per Entertainment Weekly’s Leah Greenblatt, “The Power of the Dog is in no rush to show its hand, and the film can feel almost willfully obtuse in its pacing and plot.” Yes, it doesn’t take much to smell the danger emanating from Phil and Peter’s rapport, or to predict that, sooner or later, the tension between them will finally ignite. But a predictable or turgid tale, Greenblatt reminds us, this is not: unless you’ve read Savage's novel, “there's rarely a moment that doesn't feel racked with the queasy, thrilling promise of sudden violence or epiphany.” The Power of the Dog may not grant the catharsis of big dramatic set pieces, but yields subtler, more piercing revelations. Whether or not you’ll savor it may ultimately depend on your receptiveness to the clues Campion scatters en route, and to the ominous, near-supernatural atmosphere she conjures. For those willing to follow along, Tomris Laffly assures at The Playlist, the reward will be a most lyrical journey: 
For the longest time, Campion attentively trickles in clues, leaving them up to the viewer to decipher as [Phil and Peter] build a unique bond in private, safely shielded behind the guise of traditional masculinity. […] “The Power of the Dog” soars […] despite being a movie that favors small yet jittery moments that seldom detonate over big and loud ones. It’s cinematic poetry, if there ever was one, bourgeoning in meaning the more you linger in its shadow. 
The Current Debate is a weekly column that connects the dots between great writing about a topic in the wider film conversation. 

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