The Power of the Dog Jane Campion (2021; NZ;) Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-Mcphee, Jesse Plemens
viewed Tyneside Cinema 2nd Dec 2021; ticket: £10.75
Is there life on Mars?
There are no dogs on Mars, yet! In a sense Jane Campion’s moody piece could just as well been set on Planet Mars 2125 as Montana 1925 which is where the caption in the opening sequence announces the setting. There is a palpable sense of detachment running through the film, as if we were watching the characters act out in front of cardboard sets or perhaps more pertinently, digitally generated backgrounds – just like zoom meetings.
Campion’s characters seem lost in space. Reading Chekov’s short stories, many of his condensed texts are mood pieces but they resonate with a palpable sense of time and place, grounded in the reality Chekov observed around him. ‘The Power of the Dog’s sense of place drifts towards vacuity, without cogent psycho-geography. This might be intentional on the director’s part. Perhaps Campion’s purpose was to show that obsessive behaviours drawing on deep psycho-sexual roots are transcendent of socio-cultural grounding. And, Campion’s filming took place in Zealand doubling up as the American West, also a palpable take on the proposition that if its atmosphere that’s important, anywhere can be anywhere, anytime can be anytime.
Yet using ‘film’ which is endemically rich in socio-interactive referents as an expressive medium for this type of proposition, is difficult. In ‘The Power of the Dog’ there is almost no internal voicing, voice overs from the script allowing a particular scriptive pointing up of salience and meaning. As far as I recall there is one voice over from Phil which is laid over the film’s opening shot in which he states that when his father died, he swore to himself he would do everything he could to take care of his mother. From this psychic opening we understand he is a man who takes responsibility seriously. Other than this one line of internal insight (the only one I can recall) we have to read Phil from the exteriority of his actions and the intentionality of Campion’s close-ups; as we also have to do for Peter, the young man increasingly overwhelmed by Phil’s presence.
Campion’s social interactions take place in: the big gothic house presiding over the ranch; the ranch itself, the restaurant and the town. The movement between these places is abstracted: spliced into the time line. There is no sense of a mapped emotional geography of the kind that is central to Campion’s ‘The Piano’. As in traditional Westerns Campion simply cuts from one setting to another, from the big Gothic House to then restaurant, from the ranch to the town. But ‘The Power of the Dog’ is not an action script in which advances in the plot line demand cuts that energise the development of plot. This is a study in psychic mood and atmosphere and the traditional ‘Western’ style of cutting from place to place works against Campion’s charged atmospheric development, the disorientation in space-time disrupting the build-up of the mood. Like Chekov’s plays with their unity of setting, Campion’s film might have been served the better by being anchored in one place, the big Gothic house and the adjacent ranch.
As it is the sets are delinked from the psychic homoerotic core of the film. The big Gothic house in particular is a husk a structure without resonance lacking in prime signification. As the family home it might be expected to have deeply anchored memories attached to its contents and fittings. But it doesn’t. This huge unlikely wooden pile standing in the middle of a plane never suggests anything more than a film set in which the characters shuffle to and fro, even as Rose takes up the role of mater familias. The hills in the distance as a meaning-scape into which Phil reads the runes of the film, never look anything more than a digitally composited image from a video game, and the restaurant and the town little more than absurd conceits inserted to serve the continuity demands of Campion’s script.
Without an exoskeleton of place, Campion’s movie has to stand or fall on the acting out of the roles and the associated gestural tropes defining character. Cumberbatch’s rendering of Phil holds the line of the repressed sexually squeezed energy of the character. But there comes a point where effect becomes affect, over determined affect. A point where the playing out seems to verge on the false, generated by an acting imperative rather than by naturalistic tendencies. A monolithic expressive integument stretches over Cunberbatch’s Phil. As the film progresses the part feels like a straight jacket, and as a straight jacket it might contain Phil but it is not enough to hold the together the substance of Campion’s movie.