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The Unease of the Unloved

Jane Campion has won the Oscar for Best Director at the 94th Academy Awards for ‘The Power Of The Dog’. Deservedly so, because the film talks so profoundly about how hurtful are the lonely and the unloved, and even more dangerous are those who fight such tyranny. Balpreet reviews the film.    

WHEN you’ve just been through a film like ‘The Power of The Dog’, there’s this strong nudge to re-watch. Because it takes more for such a film to filter in, before it amazes you in bouts and spurts that can’t be easily articulated. This Jane Campion film, based upon a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, slivers through ‘popular cinema’, drawing you into the unease of a deeply layered story in the lap of brown-green windswept Prairies by the Rocky Mountains of Montana of the 1920s.

It’s not easy to talk of this story. In this pretty quiet film, you sense commotion flaring up inside characters. On a slow but dangerous simmer is the psychological interaction between rancher brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons), and then a widow called Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), and her son Peter (Kodi Smit McPhee). As you look into them, peels hiding back-stories of scars, abandonment and loss begin to come off, gushing out of gashes.

The first viewing just courses over you. It begins with someone saying, ‘When my father passed I wanted nothing more than my mother’s happiness. For what kind of a man I would be if I did not help my mother? If did not save her’. And you see two calves in a head-battle before the mother of one takes on the other calf. Instantly, you slide into the story, ready for the ride. The ride pulsates with unease and an impending doom.

When you meet Phil, you see a caustic man throbbing with masculinity, defined by a rugged, unkempt look, one who won’t wash up for days, and is smooth with his knife as he castrates bulls and horses. He sears through his words, is hurtful, arrogant and cut up at places we don’t see at the onset. Though he constantly belittles his brother George calling him ‘Fatso’ and mocking his lack of wit, you sense the provocation is to engage George in a dialogue, since he’s the only one who really cares for him.

George is the gentler one who responds to Phil’s provocation with what could look like a wise silence or even timidity at some places. But as the story moves, you sense him slipping out of the shadows of his dominating brother, defying him in his own quiet but firm way. The more Phil provokes, the quieter George goes, refusing to play. He consciously keeps a distance from the toxic energy that Phil spews. This, to my mind, is Jesse Plemons’ amazing etching of George. So, when he takes Rose as his wife, he doesn’t share the news with Phil until married. Maybe because he knows Phil won’t take it well. Maybe also because Phil instantly hated and mocked Rose’s son Peter for doing ‘girly things’ like art. Maybe also because George knows of Phil’s disdain for women and his homosexuality. Especially since whenever Phil mentions his mentor and possibly his lover, Bronco Henry, George goes very quiet. Whatever his views on the subject, he chooses a golden silence. So even if George speaks very little, he is easy to figure out. You notice his intense longing for happiness and change when he tells Rose: ‘I wanted to say how nice it is not to be alone.’  

It is the stuck-in-the-past Phil who pulls you to his brutal veneer behind which peeps a man dealing with loneliness owing to homosexuality in the America of those days. He misses Bronco Henry, mentioning him at any opportunity swinging by. He’s always in his masculine aggression but as the film progresses, you begin to hear his silent cries for love. In his little haven, he stocks magazines of nude men, allows memories of his lover to wash over, and pleasures himself. When he sensuously glides a piece of cloth belonging to Bronco Henry over his body, you get a glimpse of his stinging loneliness and the tenderness possible in him. When Rose enters the household, Phil feels threatened and tortures her psychologically in ways she cannot even mention. Coming from a social complex and the ache of losing her first husband to suicide, she begins to quickly collapse under this silent torture. Kirsten Dunst is brilliant in the way she structures Rose’s transformation – from an independent cafe owner, bright and warm, to a woman full of effort and hope when she marries George, into a woman isolated in the massive ranch, secretly tortured by Phil and finally drowning herself in what she hated the most – alcohol.

The entry of her son – a soft-spoken, artistic and slightly effeminate-looking Peter - intensifies the drama. The amazing thing about Peter is he enters the film as a character who looks extremely vulnerable but as we see him more and more, we sense a strange strength about him which is too clinical for comfort. Like in the way he caresses a rabbit with assurances one second and breaks its neck in the next. When Phil watches this, you can tell even he is taken aback. From a boy who makes paper flowers, gets tearful at Phil’s mockery and plays hula hoop to calm himself down, this cold potency is almost chilling. The film gets interesting when Phil incessantly attacks Peter and tortures him psychologically just as he does Rose, but Peter handles it with an unruffled grit. You get a feeling that behind Phil’s hatred for Peter is his similarity to him. Peter’s relentless grit begins to shift Phil’s feelings towards him. He offers to teach him horse-riding and rope-weaving. So, while Peter spends more time with Phil, Rose’s distress intensifies. She has sensed the cold danger about Phil and is mortally scared. But well, Peter can probably not just look after himself, he can look after her too! Pretty solidly.

As Phil begins to melt towards Peter, you sense romantic undertones in his interest. But you aren’t sure about Peter. But whatever his sexual interests, he plays along. Though audiences may feel Peter is swept under Phil’s spell, the ending tells us otherwise. Phil weaves a rope with his wounded hand with an anthrax-infected cowhide. And while at it, his softness towards Peter turns into vulnerability and he shares his innermost secrets about the late Bronco Henry. And then, in a dramatic moment, Peter lights a cigarette and looking Phil in the eye, offers him a few drags, holding it himself. An amazingly powerful scene that underlines Phil’s surrender to Peter and Peter’s new psychological supremacy over Phil. This lighting of the cigarette connects us to when Phil had lit his cigarette, burning Peter’s paper flowers and driving the latter to tears. This is Antithesis. And how!

And the next day, Phil falls ill and while leaving for the hospital, he looks feverishly for Peter. Peter hides and watches through a window. Phil dies of Anthrax. And with him dies the torture of Rose! In the last shot, the way Peter smiles, looking upon George kissing Rose, we know the ‘why’ of the opening lines: 'when my father passed I wanted nothing more than...'

It’s a film whose brilliant screenplay and the perfectly embroidered clues get decoded with every subsequent viewing. But some elements strike you instantly. Like Cumberbatch’s potent performance. The way his eyes turn hues of blue with every tide of poisonous aggression. The way he melds the playing of his banjo and his spiteful imitation of Rose’s ‘we had such a nice trip’. The way his jaw tightens, and his eyes moisten as he hears George and Rose make love. The way he unleashes his fury at a horse, calling it a ‘bitch’, a ‘whore’. And the way we first see him take note of Peter when being mocked by many men. And then, when we finally see him softening up to Peter in a guarded way, yet so cut open.

Equally compelling is Kodi’s Peter – he never gives away the character fully. He keeps his cards close to his chest and takes the audiences with him, wondering at the goings-on inside him. Until the very end, we don’t know if his engagement with Phil is of hero-worship or a designed revenge. But yes, when you touch the end, Peter becomes even more interesting. And you set out to watch the film again, piecing it clue after clue and realising why this is such an Oscar-deserving piece of art!

And then there is the violin that travels with you, way beyond the end. So does the astonishing cinematography, especially celebrating the stark beauty of the landscape. And yes, that mountain that looks like a barking dog, which only Phil and his beloved could see. And which Peter manages to see. The look of amazement on Phil’s face? Ah!

  

Every inch of 'The Power Of The Dog' is about the unease of the unloved and the aggression to mask it. And then the powerful backlash of the protector! This circle has a profundity that grows and grows.Wow.

 
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Balpreet is a senior print and TV journalist, who also makes films. Her film, 'Mera kuch samaan' received the PTC Digital Film Award 2022 for the Most Romantic Film. She also received the Critics Award for Best Director for her film, 'Lockdown.'