Saturday 16 July 2022

Streaming still on Netflix - Sydney's supercinephile Barrie Pattison finally watches THE POWER OF THE DOG (Jane Campion, New Zealand, 2021)

"...a career-best outing..."
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog

Finally caught up with the Netflix  - Jane Campion Power of the Dog  and I feel like Donald Trump (we all need role models) commenting on Parasite getting the Oscar. “What was that about?” 

This one is a Twentieth Century set cowboy movie, so it’s not about the roaring U.P. Trail or being the fastest gun but it’s also not about the failure of macho, like The Wild Bunch or Gunman’s Walk, or the vanishing frontier, like The Plainsman, Shane or the Tom Selleck Monte Walsh (which I like a whole lot more than Power of the Dog, but no one was going to give that an Oscar). It’s a homo-erotic western but it’s not like Brokeback Mountain. It looks a bit like Heaven’s Gate but that’s not a good match either.

It took me a long time to come up with a companion piece for Power of the Dog but I did finally hit on Deliverance - the suppressed gay theme, civilisation disintegrates in a hostile environment,  the obscure Biblical reference. Hell, it’s even got a dueling banjo! Both films are irritating because they seem determined to tell us something significant but whatever that may be emerges so indistinct that you get distracted trying to figure out the message. And both films have found not only an audience but a place in the collective awareness.

The Power of the Dog  pivots on alpha male Benedict Cumberbatch in town with quieter brother Jesse Plemons to sell their herd. At Kirsten Dunst’s Red Mill restaurant, Cumberbatch heavies the noisy girls dancing to “If You Knew Susie” and lights up his roll your own on one of the paper flowers Dunst’s son Kodi Smit-McPhee uses to decorate his father’s grave. The kid channels his frustrations into working out with a Hula Hoop in the lane. Finding Kirsten crying, Jesse is apologetic and takes over serving out the salad.

Back at the ranch, someone mentions anthrax about the time Jesse introduces Kirsten as his new wife, outraging Benedict, who calls her a fortune hunter. Undeterred, Jesse has the ranch hands carry in one of those Jane Campion pianos, so she can play at the dinner he’s going to give for Governor Keith Carradine, though she protests that her experience is limited to accompaniments in a movie hall. Benedict psychs her out with his own much more accomplished version of the Radetzky March. Soon Jesse finds himself pouring her bourbon down the sink and that’s the last we see of the piano.

Matters become more complicated when awkward young Kodi arrives to spend his Med School holidays with them. The cowboys make sissy jokes but the boy is the only one to share Cumberbatch's perception of the dog shape visible in the distant hills - the film’s most filmic effect, with the camera panning from inside the dark barn to the blazing sunlight vista. 

We learn about Bronco Henry, the brothers’ childhood cowboy mentor (think Nevada Smith) whose saddle memorial they maintain in the stable. He figures more prominently than the brothers' parents, with prestige-varsity educated Benedict observing “Romulus and Remus and the wolf who raised us.”

Young Kodi however proves a more complex proposition than his appearance suggests, trapping a loveable bunny which he’s soon found dissecting for practice or uncovering the secret stash of Physical Education magazines - bare-assed fellers with fig leaves - about the time he stumbles on Benedict naked, practicing his notion of personal hygene by covering himself with river mud. Bendict takes the suspicious youth in hand, recalling his time with Bronco Henry and freaking out Kirsten. 

Inexplicable detail accumulates -  Benedict’s malevolent distaste for the Indians who he refuses hides for their leathercraft, though the ranch hands plan on burning them. Kirsten in her jammies chases a so nice indigenous pair to make them a gift of the skins drying on the railing, creating an even greater tension between her and her brother in law. The film’s accumulation of menacing incident works itself out in an unpredictable manner. Why do we wind up with hiding the hand crafted rawhide rope under the bed or the governor’s wife thrusting jewelry into Dunst’s hand?

The cast is exceptional with Cumberbatch dominating in what may be a career-best outing. Dunst takes on the daring task of coming on raddled but it’s frustrating to find celebrity support players like Carradine, Genevieve Lemon from Sweetie and Frances Conroy from Six Feet Under not given the material that justifies their presence. The technicians are on top of their games. As with Roma, Netflix’ small screen presentation will not do justice to the craft skills.

It’s definitely hidden agenda time. Jane Campion has taken on a special status. She is the standard-bearer for the idea that Australian filmmakers (even if they are New Zealanders working on their home turf) can compete in the high seriousness stakes. An Angel At My Table is one of two films that I’ve seen get a standing ovation at the Sydney Film Festival. (the other one was Maurice Elvey’s 1918 The Life of David Lloyd George, so go figure) The new film labors to prop up that suspect notion.

There’s no doubt that Power of the Dog is a class act but what is the idea they are all laboring so hard on and do we really need to have it delivered in something that’s so grim? 

Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst

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