Jane Campion’s gothic vision of rural queerness in “The Power of the Dog”

Jane Campion’s new film “The Power of the Dog”, based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name, is set on a Montana ranch in the twenties. Campion is known for making intensely beautiful images of the natural world, but in the new film (shot in her native New Zealand) her pictorial impulses are particularly breathtaking. The shots of cattle moving through the hills and across the Great Plains have the energy of one of Eugène Boudin’s beach scenes. Sequences of men playing and working, light hitting their bare flesh, muscles rippling as they pull ropes and goad their horses, possess the same languid sexual frankness of a Manet or Degas. The film shares a certain visual vocabulary with “Brokeback Mountain,” Ang Lee’s 2005 adaptation of Annie Proulx’s brilliant short story about two cowboys, Jack and Ennis, who fall in love in Sixties Wyoming. In “The Power of the Dog”, two lonely men also establish a kind of connection. But amid all the romantic beauty of the film, darkness and violence lurk, including in unexpected places. What seems to become a love story turns out to be a revenge story.

The story centers on the Burbank brothers, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons), who together run a successful breeding business. The brothers form a curious couple. Phil has a Yale degree in Classics but prefers the honest work of cattle labor, and Cumberbatch lends him the eerie charm of a highborn gone wild among thugs. (Note the ease with which he casts a bull with his bare hands.) George seems kinder, simple, gentle at first. Still, he’s more bourgeois and self-conscious, walking around in starched suits, and he throws their lives off balance when he marries a widowed innkeeper, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and takes her to live in the big, beautiful house that the brothers share. Feeling alienated and betrayed, Phil begins a campaign of psychological warfare against Rose, leading her to drink and to the verge of insanity, sometimes doing little more than pinching her banjo or whistling a tune. Rose has a teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and when he joins her at the ranch, his nightmare becomes increasingly desperate as Phil, initially an antagonist of the boy, apparently tries to woo him.

Over the course of the film, the Burbank house becomes a Gothic interior – as Anthony Lane puts it, the film is more of a bedroom drama than a western – but the landscape outside remains an Eden. In this place, the film seems to say, men are allowed to work and play without the intercession of what John Updike has once absurdly described as “the chirping, swinging, and civilizing animation of a character. feminine ”and“ the ancient sacred structures of the family. ”Instead, Phil is dedicated to the memory of a deceased cowboy named Bronco Henry, who once taught the Burbank brothers everything they know about life on a ranch. A saddle that once belonged to Bronco Henry is on display in the barn as a sanctuary. In one of the first scenes, Phil is awake in the room he and his brother have shared for most of their lives, listening to the sounds of George and Rose making love next door. In disgust (the ambiguity of its source is a strength of the film), Phil steps out into the barn and removes the saddle from his perch to give it a clean. is about to perform this duty with the same gro sseety which he has shown in almost every other scene. Instead, he lovingly and tenderly works with oil in old leather, and Campion plays the moment with Freudian acuteness – the erotic transference is almost too hard to bear. Phil, who until then had seemed a cliché of the macho cowboy, a boastful example of toxic masculinity, is starting to become more visible. He may be a repressed homosexual, a former lover of Bronco Henry, and his hostility towards Rose and her son has something to do with his own stifled desires.

Dunst plays Rose with a pessimistic naturalism that is sometimes based on a strange femininity. I say weird because we learn that Rose’s first husband committed suicide, making her and her son outcasts, and she was forced to start running the inn as a means of survival. The things she’s been through should shine from her like a light trapped under a frozen sea. In the novel, we understand better why Phil makes Rose his target. After all, she is an intruder, a threat to social order, and at certain points in the book she Is seems to be a bit of an operator, less a passive victim than a capricious participant in her own sad state. (In clothing stores, she “was an easy mark for saleswomen, buying hats, gloves and shoes,” writes Savage, adding: “She began to think of clothes as costumes, disguises, masks. to hide the useless and scared self that she was becoming. “) There are some brilliant moments in Dunst’s performance. When she hears Phil prowling around a dark corner of the house, you feel how she feels the terror of her presence. In one scene, sitting in a beautiful dress, the candle light flickering as George and her parents wait for her to play the piano, she appears to be facing the gallows. Her performance becomes more and more evident. stronger as Rose’s situation deteriorates, unfolding until she’s exhausted to the point of breaking up. But for much of the film, the character possesses a naïve, child-like reluctance. locked in a maud dollhouse ite, whose fatal mistake was to imagine that she could find happiness again. (Without revealing where Rose’s story goes, I’ll say that the film also softens the edges of some of the novel’s Gothic horrors.)

Campion, a director known for her digs into female psychology, here seems more concerned with Rose as a catalyst for the changing relationships between the men around her and, in particular, the pas de deux between Peter and Phil. In my mind, boy and man represent two opposing destinies of rural homosexuality. Savage wrote in the sixties on the twenties, but Peter’s story, in particular, was familiar to me from my own childhood as a queer black boy in the nineties on a farm in Alabama. rural. There are some heartbreaking rites of masculinity that may never change. Peter has slim and feminine features. At the ranch, he’s clumsy and out of place, an easy target. He wants to be a doctor and gets even weirder dissecting rabbits in his bedroom. The torment Phil unleashes on Peter – mocking his lisp, encouraging other men to scare him with their horses, uttering homophobic slurs – was familiar to me in the manner of old wounds that wake up in bad weather. My chest ached for the boy, just like when I read Savage’s novel almost ten years ago. I was still living in Alabama at the time, in my grandparents’ dark house, and I consumed the story with both painful and pleasant despair.

Watching the movie, however, I understood the story a little differently. Whereas before I mostly recognized myself in Peter’s plight, I now felt a complicated sympathy for Phil, whose tragedy is just as deep, if not more so. In a few dream scenes, he retreats to a secret spring in the woods, where he coats his body with mud and then throws himself into the river, or strokes himself with an old handkerchief that once belonged to Bronco Henry. Watching this last sequence, I thought of the end of “Brokeback Mountain,” when Ennis, overwhelmed by the loss of Jack, grabbed a pair of old interlocking shirts, a long forgotten artifact of their love. Phil’s moments alone, communing with Bronco Henry, are among the film’s strongest, in part because they spellbind everything around them, charging even the most mundane passages with mystery and emotion.

Still, there is something wrong with the second half of “The Power of the Dog”. The story slackens, turns in slow motion in a place of simmering hostility between Rose and Phil. You wonder, where is all this going? A pivotal moment comes when Peter discovers Phil’s forest refuge, including vaguely pornographic material that hints at the true nature of Phil’s devotion to Bronco Henry and the cult of masculinity. Phil, caught bathing in the spring like a figure from a Greek myth, chases the boy away screaming obscenities. But after that, something strange happens. Phil softens to the boy. He promises to teach Peter how to become a real breeder. He says he’ll make Peter a rope before the boy leaves by the end of the summer, and show Peter how to use it, as Bronco Henry once taught him. It’s a change that puzzles Rose, who tries to push Peter away from him, to no avail.

Suddenly it seems that Phil and Peter could be soul mates – that despite the strict social codes of their time and way of life, they will find something meaningful in each other, an unlikely and forbidden bond. . I mean, after reading the book I knew that wasn’t where things were going. But I can understand how a viewer, conditioned by past accounts of connection between lonely strangers, might suspect that something is about to happen. to arrive between these two. And, to be fair, something does happen, and all the cold looks under his eyes that Peter is staring at Phil slowly fall into place. A spoiler: Peter is not in love with Phil. Peter hates Phil for the way Phil treated Rose. Whether the action he takes seems appropriate or disproportionate will depend, I think, on the film’s ability to convince you of the extent of Rose’s suffering.

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