Chaps and More Chaps, and a Little Anthrax on the Side
How Jane Campion’s Dude Ranch Film Slides Away into the Montana Night
By Janelle McCulloch
“The Power of the Dog” directed by Jane Campion (2021)
What can be said about The Power of the Dog? It’s a strange way to begin a film review of this Western drama, but I am well and truly mute. And much of this now-widely-talked-about film is, too. It’s a beautifully shot piece, low on dialogue but big on wide Montana skies (which are actually wide New Zealand skies), and there are some very impressive pecs in between the suggestive scenes of rolling hills at dusk. But take away the twilights and the semi-naked ranch hands in shiny leather and the script seems short of a page or two, as though some revengeful gofer on set had ripped out a few crucial scenes and thrown them to the wind.
I know this sounds a tad mean, and I’m not usually so tightly wound about Jane Campion’s film, but bear with me. I’m still confused. The great Jane Campion’s her first feature for more than a decade, Dog is a Western drama, but not as you know them. There’s less yee-ha and more oh-no-no-no. There are lots of themes — inner and outer landscapes; clothes that don’t fit properly; why drinking too much is sometimes a good thing… (I probably needed a drink during the movie, and I don’t even drink). But the overarching lesson is not to take your pants off in a dude ranch. Actually, that’s a bit harsh. There’s no sex to speak off, unless you count an awkward wedding night, but there is the suggestion of what happens when there are too many men squeezed together in a rough Montana valley and not enough women to say: “Perhaps you need to have a wash?”
Rose (Kirsten Dunst) is a down-on-her-luck restauranteur who meets and marries roly-poly, pasty-faced George (Jesse Plemmons from Breaking Bad, the most un-rancher-looking rancher you’ve ever seen) and moves her shy son Peter (Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee) and their small belongings into the grand life of her rich new husband and his brutish, menacing rancher brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), who stomps around in spurs and leather chaps that are bigger than the Grand Teton. Their ranch is, quite frankly, the most f*cked up place I’ve ever seen. I’m saying that because I feel compelled to warn you. This film is not a romance. There are shades of Deliverance, of Brokeback Mountain, and of Dude Monthly magazine (the porn version), so if you’re uncomfortable with any of that, go and watch some Christmas Carols. That said, the lead, Benedict Cumberbatch is being spoken about in Oscar terms. Yes, really.
Rose’s husband George (the pasty-faced one), is kind but rarely around (and certainly rarely seen on a horse!), so she’s left to deal with his intense brother Phil (the one with the chaps). On a side note, can we talk about these names? This is Montana 1925; were there men called ‘Phil’ cracking whips on the Great Plains? I could be wrong. Anyway, back to Rose. She’s not feeling Phil’s whip so she begins drinking while chubby-faced hubby is out of town. Her gangly, awkward son Peter, whose pants keep falling down, returns from college and because his pants are falling down Leather Phil takes him under his chaps and shows him the ways of the land. Cue banjo-ing. Sorry, that’s cynical. Cue the whistling. And the eye-balling. And the horse buttocks as they head off into the sunset on yet another “ride”. (Sorry, cynicism again. But there ARE a lot of visual metaphors. Just sayin’.)
The landscape is beautiful and grand but also suffocating in many ways. There are no Zara or Zimmerman stores here, no bookshops, no IGA Liquor places to pick up a quick rosé. Just chaps, wearing chaps. And lots of them. Now I like Benedict Cumberbatch, although he does pick some curious roles, and this one doesn’t quite show his range, although it does show his new pecs, which he seems to rub a lot? (He’s obviously proud of them.) The New Yorker called it ‘Gothic horror”, but I don’t see Gothic; I see darkness of character and a lot of grey clouds, but it doesn’t have the elements of a Southern (or in this case Northern) Gothic? It’s poetic in parts, but strained in others, and quite frankly some things don’t make sense. Phil (there’s that name again) supposedly has a Yale degree in Classics, but I’m not seeing that education in his manner or his language, which barely covers “Yup” and “Come here, son”. The shift from foes to friends between Phil and Peter also happens so suddenly that it doesn’t feel real; a rancher would not change tack like that in real life. Their movements are slower, more measured; behaviour that is learned from being around animals all day. And the leather-plait-weaving thing is confusing too. Is that a metaphor for something? Or just a pretty rope? I don’t know. But it goes on far too long. By the end of the film, that braided rope could go around Montana. (I thought it might have been used for deadlier purposes, but no: Peter has something darker in mind.)
It’s a long, slow build-up of tension, so you KNOW “something terrible is gonna happen”, as they say in dodgy Westerns, but when it does come it’s so quick that if you are looking away, say, to text your sister-in-law to say what a strange and turgid movie this is and could she please explain why people from Adelaide do such strange and turgid movie roles, the action has suddenly happened and the final credits are rolling. The twist in the end comes so fast you’d better be watching and not scrolling through Instagram. Or you’re gonna have to watch it again to understand it. And quite frankly, I’d rather poke my eye out with a spur.
Basically, it’s a revenge film. Dressed in a lot of leather. A story of a bloke who comes undone by his friendship with a younger fellow; a fellow who doesn’t like leather, doesn’t like chaps, doesn’t like spurs, doesn’t like cowboy boots and probably doesn’t like having tobacco being spat at him. And I don’t blame him. A fellow who likes his white running shoes and high-top jeans and book-reading ways. In fact, the lesson of the story could be: Never dismiss a book-reading nerd.
I give it one star. I want to give it two, I really do. But Leather Phil just doesn’t do it for me. After these crazy, stressful two years, I just want some love. Bring on the Christmas Carols.[Dear Janelle, thanks so much for this incisive review – and for seeing this so we don’t have to. It sounds like an addle-brained homage to the ‘art’ of George Quaintance. – Ed.]