Is This Desire?: On Jane Campion’s Anguished New Epic, “The Power of the Dog”
By Ryan ColemanJanuary 14, 2022
I. MY GOD, MY GOD,
why have you forsaken me?
It’s been over a decade since the release of Jane Campion’s last film. 2009’s Bright Star is a swooning portrait of the immortal romance between the poet John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his lover, Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). It was about as Campion as a film can get — based on a romantic (in this case, literally Romantic) literary source, set in a lush environment that verges on frightening in its wild overgrowth, fascinated by the turbulence of interpersonal psychosexual dynamics, and redolent with explorations of Campion’s most signature concern: the persistence of women in a world organized against them. If Campion had intended it to be her final feature, and many suspected as much, as her hiatus from the big screen stretched from three into five, seven, and then 10-plus years, it would have been a fitting swan song. The most accomplished literary filmmaker on the world stage, plucking out an elegy to the most elegiac poet in the English canon.
But Campion didn’t retire; she’s just been working in television. Between 2013 and 2017 Campion produced two seasons of Top of the Lake, a British/New Zealand/Australian co-production for the BBC that she directed with Garth Davis and wrote with early collaborator Gerard Lee (Sweetie, Passionless Moments). For my money — and I might as well disclose this now, I am a Jane Campion die-hard — those 12 episodes rival her most masterful films, 1990’s life-affirming epic An Angel at My Table and 2003’s perverted downward spiral In the Cut. Top of the Lake follows the phenomenal Elisabeth Moss as Robin Griffin, a Sydney-based detective who specializes in sex crimes. Campion’s camera tracks Griffin with unyielding focus as she probes the darker corners of life in modern Australia and New Zealand, where rotten colonial legacies surge back from the past, haunting the present and mingling with Griffin’s own memories of gendered violence. The expanded canvas of the television format allowed Campion to experiment in new ways with pacing, performance, and cause-and-effect plotting. The results were astonishing — unspeakably deep stories of trauma and history studded with broad humor, surreal, happenstantial plot twists, and exaggerated performances, pretzeled into difficult narrative structures that demand an open mind and patient contemplation.
The obvious reference for Campion’s triumphant return to the big screen with The Power of the Dog is her most lauded film, The Piano (1993). On the surface, that film has everything The Power of the Dog has: period clothes, a stunning, windswept setting, a conflicted central female character, and a lot bubbling under the surface about sex and power. There’s even a piano! But that is where the comparison stops. If The Power of the Dog has any of Campion’s previous work encoded in its DNA, it’s Top of the Lake.
This violent film sheds no blood and depicts no fights. This sexual autopsy contains no sex. And in the last 10 minutes of what appears to be the most straightforward, unadorned narrative composition of her career, the film bucks, throws the viewer off its back, and stampedes toward a bitter, bewildering conclusion that recasts everything you’ve just watched in a tragic new light. With The Power of the Dog, Campion decidedly enters the elder sage period of her career, where traditional modes of audiovisual comprehension are annulled, and instant gratifications are rebuked. It is an exacting film, yet punishingly elusive, leaden with long stretches of taut nothingness that are not punctured by sex or violence. Campion refuses the libidinal compulsion to ravish setup with payoff; she’s after something tougher. More than anything, more than the savage Piano and brutal Top of the Lake, The Power of the Dog is a film about anguish. Further: It is anguish incarnate. My God, my god! you can imagine any of the film’s main quartet crying out: why have you forsaken me?
II. But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by men and despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they sneer and shake their heads.
The Power of the Dog tells the story of four lives that fatefully intersect on Montana’s Great Northern Plains. It’s 1925, and while the rest of the country is guzzling champagne and bobbing their hair, brothers Phil and George Burbank (a tyrannical, repressed Benedict Cumberbatch and a characteristically flat, fantastic Jesse Plemons) are driving a herd of cattle through the one-horse town of Beech. There they meet Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), the sweet, hard-working caretaker of a restaurant/boarding house and her sensitive, doll-like teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil barks at Rose for better service, calls his brother “fatso,” and repeatedly shames Peter for his delicate effeminacy. (In a heartbreaking scene, he incinerates a paper rose Peter was shown meticulously crafting, garnering laughter from his whole band of cowboys.) But George, who clearly has practice absorbing and neutralizing Phil’s multidirectional abuse, disengages from the spectacle. He takes a shine to Rose, who is touched by this wealthy man’s selfless offer to help serve salad and clean plates. The two are engaged off camera, and though Phil is adamantly opposed, plans are set to move Rose and Peter (when he’s not in school) to the Burbanks’ far-off provincial estate.
The moment Rose and Peter are integrated into the Burbanks’ fraught brotherly dynamic, the film locks into position. Campion kicks off a series of imperceptibly subtle shifts in relational power that build to a gut-wrenching implosion in the film’s final moments. By that time, one of the characters is dead, another has gone mad, and a third has demonstrated a sociopathic capacity that is bone-chilling, and somehow strangely sympathetic.
At the center of this matrix of antagonisms are Phil and George. Phil refers to the two of them as “Romulus and Remus” (Phil, we find out, despite his coarse tongue and commitment to the rugged, unshowered cowboy bit, studied Latin and Greek at Yale), and the spoiled milk of fraternal affection seems directly passed down from that ancient conflict that built Rome up just to tear it apart. Phil hovers around George like a gadfly, incessantly jabbing at his appearance and picking fights. Yet there’s an obvious, manic desperation to Phil’s pursuit of his brother’s attention. George is solemn, stentorian, rarely speaking back to his brother or even holding eye contact for very long. Phil, driven nearly psychotic by insecurity, and by jealousy over others’ perceived security, has in turn driven his brother into the defensive position of monkish stoicism.
George’s instant attraction to the light and open Rose is at first a welcome blush of genuine warmth. But as the film progresses, it can be seen merely as George’s own desperate bid to escape his brother, or at least fortify his defenses against Phil’s relentless onslaught. Rose, accustomed to the dignity, occupation, and identity that comes through work, finds herself abandoned by her busy husband and isolated by the passivity of upper-class womanhood. She drifts nervously from room to room, evading Phil’s sadistic gaze, helping the maids who don’t want her help with dishes, and tinkling without any confidence on the grand piano George buys her in a sad, compensatory gesture. Hounded by isolation in a land of hard-faced men, Rose turns to drinking. When Peter finally re-enters the film on school break, his mother is already gone. She crawls toward him in a slip, teary-eyed, asking him to “help his mama.”
It’s only then the viewer may recall the enigmatic voice-over that opens the film. It’s Peter’s soft voice, which asks, “What kind of man would I be if I didn’t help my mother, if I didn’t save her?” Throughout The Power of the Dog, Phil throws his rope of corrosive negativity around George, who knots it around Rose, and as they struggle against it, it only constricts tighter. But the buck stops with Peter, the most complex, surprising, and memorable character in the film. Later, having just learned the basics of riding, Peter leads a horse down a steep incline made of loose earth, with sheer drop-offs on either side. Anxious, almost out of control, yet totally self-possessed, it is a perfect visual metaphor for the tightrope Smit-McPhee walks in this standout performance.
Where Cumberbatch, Plemons, and Dunst are playing variations on familiar characters — repressed macho man, burnt-out beta proxy, mad housewife — Peter emerges as a new type, unpredictable in its complexity. Smit-McPhee harnesses the indefinability of his character’s personality: vulnerable on the outside, yet ironclad on the inside (a perfect inversion of Cumberbatch’s). His physicality, at once wispy, alien, and macho in its confidence, slips the grasp of Phil’s bitter noose. Peter lures out a long-suppressed homoerotic desire in Phil. Peter can’t ride a horse, braid a rope, or tan a hide, but he can look directly into Phil’s eyes without fear and walk like a sissy without shame. What Peter can’t do that Phil can teach him excites Phil, but not as much as what Peter does with ease that Phil wouldn’t in his wildest dreams even attempt. Reviews that brand The Power of the Dog a cautionary tale of “toxic masculinity” and repressed sexuality miss the point. Those contemporary talking points only get at the surface of Phil’s inner struggle. For a fuller picture of the true Power of the Dog, you must go further back.
III. But You, O Lord, be not far off;
O my Strength, come quickly to help me.
Deliver my soul from the sword,
my precious life from the power of the dog.
The Power of the Dog was adapted from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name.
Savage, an American, created one of the first “neo-Westerns” with The Power of the Dog, a novel which reinterprets rather than reiterates the conventions that define this superlatively American genre. He also created what the clever literary critic today might call a work of autofiction. As a teenager in the 1920s, Savage lived on a Montana ranch, his mother having married the rough half of a pair of brother ranchers; both father and stepson kept quiet about their closeted homosexuality. Double consciousness, subterfuge, and the return of the repressed go beyond mere thematic explorations for Savage, who was open about his sexuality to his wife of 60 years, the novelist Elizabeth Savage, but remained closeted to most everyone else. His self-protection principles became their own set of formal conventions: deeply charged symbolism that never has a one-to-one interpretive legibility; graceful, linear plot lines that suddenly arc through pitch black omissions in context that leave readers, and characters, confused and frustrated, and a panoply of characters who must carry on with each day’s work as though their internal worlds aren’t corroding under an unseen acid rain of paranoia and self-hatred. In an interview on Radio New Zealand, Campion remarked that she “imagines [Savage] thought of himself as Peter in a way.” To find our antecedent for Peter’s tragic foil, Phil, this story’s dark center of gravity, we must go even further back.
Savage’s book shares its title with a 1922 poem by Rudyard Kipling. “There is sorrow enough in the natural way,” begins the opening stanza, “From men and women to fill our day; / And when we are certain of sorrow in store, / Why do we always arrange for more?” The sentiment can be grafted onto any character in the film, though it immediately resonates with Phil — suffering, beautiful, tragically misunderstood, and punished, by himself most of all.
Kipling is an interesting antecedent for Phil. The Indian-born British writer exerted considerable influence over the English literary scene during his hot period, from the 1890s through 1907, when he became the first Englishman awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Kipling was highly regarded by many of his contemporaries. Henry James called him “the most complete man of genius […] I have ever known.” Others were less favorable. In a 1942 reconsideration of his work, George Orwell referred to Kipling as a “prophet of British Imperialism,” and judged his work, in particular the infamous 1899 poem “The White Man’s Burden” as “morally insensitive and aesthetically disgusting.” As for the view from his country of birth, Salman Rushdie sums up his own complex stew of reluctant pride and revulsion toward Kipling with his remark, “I have never been able to read Kipling calmly.”
Misunderstood genius or evil chauvinist? Probably both in the case of Phil Burbank, a character so forceful and potent that he remains resonant long after Campion’s film ends, despite Cumberbatch’s hampered and often hammy attempts to channel him. Still older ancestors call out to be beckoned forth and counseled about their connections to Burbank and the rest of The Power of The Dog. One text informs the beguiling character relations at play in Campion’s new film better than any other. It is the big daddy of all family drama narratives, and the text from which Kipling got the name for his poem: the Old Testament.
Psalm 22, from which I have taken headings of each “chapter” in this essay, is a masterclass in making anguish textual. Thirty-one lines of abject helplessness, torture, and pleas for salvation. “I cry out by day, O my God,” the narrator pleads, “but You do not answer.” Psalm 22 is often attributed to David, King of Israel and Judah, the once-pipsqueak slayer of Goliath. Peter’s incantation, which opens the film, gains significant new dimensions when linked to this ancient, oral historical tradition: the boy who would be king and the bully who would meet justice. Campion deepens the impact of this historical link by structuring the film the same way biblical allegories are structured — as an elliptical, circuitous mystery, whose ending reframes the questions asked in the beginning but does not outright answer them. We see the verse from Psalm 22 in question in a brief scene in which Phil nervously flips through the Bible. If God the Father “delivered” the soul of his son from the “sword” of the Roman Empire through the crucifixion (Psalm 22 is sometimes called the “the fifth gospel,” as it seems to predict the martyrdom of Christ hundreds of years before he was born), what is “the power of the dog”? And whose “precious life” needs to be saved from it?
A fifth character who holds the key to these questions presides over the central quartet like a mysterious god. Bronco Henry was the stern, capable father figure from Phil and George’s past who taught the boys the ropes. Savage based Bronco Henry on a real cowboy from Idaho’s Lemhi County who worked for his grandparents. In his biography of Savage, O. Alan Weltzien traces the complicated weave of father figures and sexual partners that went into the creation of Bronco Henry, a figure who simultaneously represents “unavailable love […] ostracism and exclusion […] [and] death.” It is implied in Campion’s film that Bronco Henry is dead, or at least long gone. Yet Phil remains neurotically fixated on him, polishing his saddle every night where it sits alone and enthroned in its own special barn. As Phil’s carefully constructed defenses gradually dissemble, and his feelings for Peter reveal themselves, Peter discovers that Phil may have been “the Peter” in his own secret relationship with Bronco Henry.
This multigenerational chain of homoerotic relation that is at once sexual and paternal has upset some critics when it’s appeared in films like Call Me by Your Name and Carol. But these are the dynamics that arise when dealing with feelings as ancient as those in The Power of the Dog. In an unspeakably charged scene, Phil and Peter stand at the back entrance to the Bronco Henry barn, staring at the cloud-dappled hills. Phil explains that Bronco Henry taught him to “see things no one else can see.” When Peter points out a shadow that looks like the head of a barking of a dog on the hillside, Phil is stunned. He turns to Peter. “You just saw that?” he asks. “You just saw that right now?”
Is this the power of the dog? This secret sight of double identity that Phil and Peter share? The “power of the dog” in Psalm 22 is often read as “the power of the mob” — of angry disbelievers. But in a deep analysis of a strange phrase used in 2 Samuel 3:8, Old Testament scholars Duane A. Garrett and Paul R. House open up the ways “dog” may have been interpreted in contemporary contexts.
The Book of Samuel is littered with “dog” phraseology: 1 Samuel 17:43, “‘Am I a dog?’ he said to David, ‘that you come at me with sticks?”; 1 Samuel 24:14, “Whom are you pursuing? A dead dog? A flea?”; 2 Samuel 9:8, “What is your servant, that you should show regard for a dead dog like me?” Dog is easily understood literally in most of these examples, but most translations of 2 Samuel 3:8 use the word in a befuddling way. The English Standard Version reads: “Abner was very angry over the words of Ish-bosheth and said, ‘Am I a dog’s head of Judah’?” Abner, who was a key figure in helping David reunite the tribes of Israel, is furious in this passage over Ish-boseth’s accusation that he slept with Saul’s concubine, Rizpah. Garrett and House puzzle over the odd modification “dog’s head,” finding eventually that “if ‘head’ is itself slang for ‘penis,’ then ‘dog’s head’ is a special kind of slur, one reserved for a male prostitute.” In the way that none of our intuitively obvious slang insults will make sense decades, never mind centuries, from now, “dog” comes into focus with a little context. It may even have been colloquially used to “symbolically describe an urgent desire for sexual release.”
The same quality that prevents Phil from accepting the loss of Bronco Henry drives him to at first ostracize, and then later obsess over Peter. And taking cover in the haze of that obsession, Peter devises his own plan for release, not from the bondage of sexual repression, but from the confused domination of the sexually repressed. It is Peter’s mere presence, the immutable fact of the flesh upon his bones that is the “power of the dog.” In Jane Campion’s hands, the present is always historical and the textual is always physical, while the very real, banal turns of events to which we must succumb remain mysterious. At this stage in her career, it’s what’s not eminently visible that demands closest inspection.
Ryan Coleman was born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley, where he writes film criticism and cultural commentary.
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