Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Nov 29, 2021 6:57 pm 
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Machismo challenged

This is an assured and austerely beautiful movie, whether its striking New Zealand landscapes work as stand-ins for the ranges of Montana or not. It has an elegant sense of period, 1925 (in its look). Jonny Greenwood's score, like the ones he did for Paul Thomas Anderson and Lynne Ramsey, is distinctive. This is first-rate stuff. And yet it unmistakably falls just a little flat at the end with a finale that's surprising, but too abrupt. The test comes in the work it evokes, George Stevens' Giant and Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven. Though its landscapes and scenes of cowboys at work are breathtaking and painterly, the film has neither the epic sweep of Giant nor the lyrical flights of Days of Heaven. It comes off as a very classy study in gender role-playing, with distinctive trappings of the Western - or the anti-Western, as Anthony Lane suggests (it's almost as quirkily authentic as Jarmusch's Dead Man). It seems woefully underlit till one grasps how authentic that is. At times the cast members appear to be rattling around in the magnificent settings with too little to do, hampered by an action that moves a little too slowly. "Slow burn," yes; but for that the pacing must really burn. And yet this delights the eye and ear and lingers in the mind.

With this "mysterious and menacing" "Gothic Western Jane Campion makes one of her best films, set in Montana in the 1920's based on Thomas Savage's eponymous 1967 novel about a man lost "in the veneer of his masculinity." That's a description used in an interview by Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays the lead character, Phil Burbank, a wealthy rancher who lives alone in a vast house with his milder, plumper brother George (Jesse Plemons). George disrupts this safe masculine world when he abruptly marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst, Plemons' real-life spouse), a widow who runs a frontier inn, and brings her to live in the big house. Her late husband, a doctor, committed suicide. Her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) disturbs and maddens Phil with his seeming effeminacy when George and Phil meet them by taking the ranch hands to dine at the inn to celebrate roundup time. The story is of that uncomfortable meeting and the disruption that follows when things are rearranged at the ranch house.

The casting is a work of art. Benedict Cumberbatch is awesome as Phil Burbank, the ill-humored Marlboro man brother who thrives on dispensing cruel mockery and is just barely warding off homosexual panic. If his stinky cowboy pose feels rather fake, that's the point, since as we soon learn he's a Phi Beta Kappa in Classics from Yale. Phil has learned the wrangling and tough cowboy talk and the one-handed ciggy rolling, wearing chaps all the time and never washing from a deceased, still obsessed-on mentor called Bronco Henry dead at 50 who himself didn't learn to ride till he was, well, abut the age of Peter. Smit-McPnee, who plays that role, is more important than Kirsten Dunst as Rose, his mother, because this story is about masculine roles, not about women, and Peter is a major provocation for Phil, and perhaps an attraction. Kodi and Benedict are both beanpoles, Kodi slightly the taller and the more unique looking. Kodi has said he liked the role of Peter because his character is more secure about being the way he is than he is himself, which is to say "very feminine." McPhee may seem daunted momentarily as Peter, but the character is notable for his total inner stillness and self-possession, even when challenged.

Jane Campion may have been derailed by #MeToo into making this film, especially since she hasn't done a feature in 12 years. Is a film critiquing masculine roles a feminist film when its women are this unimportant? From the masculine point of view, feminism like this can seem strained.

There are two women working in the house, the housekeeper Mrs Lewis (Campion regular Geneviève Lemon) and a young attractive maid, but they aren't noticed, except to make Rose uncomfortable at being waited on. (A lustier, or straighter, young lad would have made a move on the maid.) Rose does not thrive. She has been greeted as an adventuress by Phil, he has already made her weep by mocking her son on first meeting, and unlike her unflappable offspring she is deeply shaken and takes to drink, hiding bottles of bourbon round the house. Phil points this out in the rudest and most explicit terms. George may have ways of coping with this, but he tends to fall by the wayside as the action focuses at the end on Phil and Pete.

Phil will have a change of heart toward Pete and start to train him in cowboy-ing, though it will be short-lived since the young man is a now medical student and only there for summer vacation. This film is divided into chapters, like a book. But several of these seem to go by before we notice them; the fluid time-scheme moves swiftly. One thing that lingers in the mind is the bad evening set piece early in the marriage when George invites Mom and Dad and the governor of the state (Keith Carradine) and his wife (Alison Bruce) to dinner, and Rose chokes when asked to play the baby grand piano George has bought her, even though she used to play in a dance hall. Phil shows up only at the end because he refused to wash. Yale seems to have worn off pretty thoroughly. But what's really left?

Power of the Dog seems to both drag and skip swiftly toward its abrupt plot twists. But those supremely awkward moments gendered by Phil, and almost all the big scenes, stand out vividly, including the time when Phil takes the boy, whom he now calls "Pete-my-pal," up into the hills. The finale, as mentioned, is abrupt, as is the explanation of where "the power of the dog" comes from and how it enters the story. But there is another dog, an unexpected one that links Phil and Pete and gives them an almost mystical bond - and hints at more in the original novel that may be lost here. The finale, as Owen Gleiberman says in his Variety review, needs a more "bruising catharsis" and "becomes too oblique."

The Power of the Dog, 126 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 2, 2021 and showed at over two dozen major international festivals including Telluride, Toronto, New York, Mill Valley, Busan, the Hamptons, and London. US limited release Nov. 17, 2021; on Nettlix Dec. 1. Screened for this review at Shattuck Cinemas, Berkeley CA, Nov. 29. Metacritic rating: 88%.

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