Total and utter spoilers ahead
Things really took off when Emily asked if she could make a bold assertion, and then announced to our table: “I don’t think this is really a western.”
From the moment I first heard about The Power of the Dog, to the moment I sat down with two pals and a very full house of Portland freaks (Freaks 4 Campion), I knew only a very few tantalizing things about it, but that it was a western had seemed a given. Jane Campion Adapts a Western. The New Jane Campion Western. Benedict Cumberbatch IS: In a Western? New Zealand Doubles For the American Mountain West In Actually the Second Time That’s Happened In a Western Starring Kodi Smit-McPhee, Which Is Just Weird That’s Happened Twice.
But I spend every autumn asking my friends what their personal definition of horror is, and talking about movies where we’ll say things like actually it’s really a horror film, or, actually it’s not really a horror per se, it’s just using some horror elements. Why not westerns too? What is my personal definition of the western genre? What would make something Actually A Western, or Actually Not?
I immediately agreed: I also didn’t think The Power of the Dog was a western, but I didn’t know why yet. Jody too agreed, and she did know why. Years ago she had read some lit crit that proposed there are two types of westerns: Cowboy Westerns, and Town Westerns. She has a marked preference for Town Westerns; she likes the interpersonal dynamics of a small community on the outskirts. A classic Town Western: Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. A Cowboy Western: Star Trek: The Original Series. Us: Oh shit! Of course. In fact Gene Roddenberry had clearly named westerns as one of his inspirations for the Star Trek series. Space, the Final Frontier.
But another friend, chiming in the next day, was not swayed from the western camp, as she thinks The Power of the Dog fits a third type of western not covered by Cowboy or Town: the family or clan against an Interloper, or some sort of threat to the Homestead. What’s interesting about this particular classification is that unlike the other two it hinges on something more situational than demographic. Perception, too, of who is the threatener and who is the threatened. One of the things I’ve been mulling over in trying to come up with my definition of horror is how tied it might be to who you think the protagonist is, and when that’s not all that clear, neither is the work’s classification as horror. (A case study: David Lowery’s A Ghost Story.) When Alex proposed the Interloper to the Homestead Western, I started to wonder if The Power of the Dog could be a western for Phil, defending his ranch & way of life against these outsiders, but for Peter more a dark psychosexual drama à la Park Chan Wook, and honestly maybe just a horror for poor Rose, being driven to madness. Then Alex revealed she was actually thinking it was Peter who was in the western! “For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?”
I think setting is going to be very relevant to whatever my western definition is, something I can’t say at all for horror actually (which is interesting). For me the western genre certainly applies far beyond stories set specifically in the American West, because the operative factor isn’t particular physical features of the landscape, but the juxtaposition of the culture held by the protagonists with this perceived wilderness outside of it [insert image of Captain Picard drinking earl grey in space here]. Maybe there’s a sort of overlapping Venn diagram genre that we could call the Frontier story. As Alex summarized it: “expansive landscapes, usually white people fighting against inhospitable elements, also the undercurrent of the indigenous people being pushed out.” Lots of things set in Australia and New Zealand would seem to fall into this, perhaps even Jane Campion’s legacy-creating The Piano, and ALSO: polar stories (we got very excited about this). I’d wager maybe all westerns would also be frontier stories, but not all frontier stories are westerns. I mean, I do not think AMC’s The Terror is a western. Definitely most days I don’t. However, my own bold claim I did offer to the table soon after Emily’s: Lawrence of Arabia is a western.
Lawrence would actually seem to fit Emily’s personal definition of western she has been refining since dinner. As she puts it, “the main requirement for me is that it must be about a struggle to bring law to an otherwise lawless place, by any means necessary (especially violence), and that the ultimate cost of that struggle is a loss of humanity.” The lawlessness can be anything from Untamed Nature (native populations usually falling within this from the white perspective) to the rapaciousness of other settler-colonizers (outlaws & racketeers &c), but in the effort to combat this lawlessness you pretty much always end up with “isolated, battle-worn loners.” She acknowledges that she has also basically just defined the wandering samurai genre again. But the fascinating cultural interplay between cowboys and samurai is a whole other essay we do not have time for right now.
Because I do know now what genre I think The Power of the Dog is. I got it directly from a New Yorker essay actually: I think it’s a gothic. A western gothic, of the Flannery O’Connor school of southern gothic. There’s more elements of horror here actually, more unease, more twisted roots. A western can be dark; a gothic is dark. There are no blunt, open shoot-outs in The Power of the Dog, instead the violence is all coldly slipped under your skin. The subtle cruelty of psychological torment. The sinuous brutality of poisoning. These are the methods of a gothic.
It’s a movie constructed of vague dread, just profound cinema of dread. I didn’t know WHAT was going to happen, but I knew something was going to. Tension like Phil pulling on the braided rope, taught with nervy curious uncertainty. At dinner when Phil plucked up one of Peter’s paper flowers and began flattening the petals, questing into the center of it with his finger, I felt like I was going to scream. That Peter was going to be revealed an ~ultimate~ murder twink and I’d end the film screaming in that way is something I was not at all prepared for, despite that this movie was a real “Mister Police, I gave you all the clues,” in retrospect. Cinema of sleight of hand! Cinema of gay-on-gay crime.
Peter is the fulcrum on which this movie turns. It’s real good in the first section when it’s mostly a dance between Phil and Rose, and occasional odd endearing little steps by Jesse Plemons besotted with his real life wife (them!), but when Peter comes home on break from medical school, the whole thing starts to turn around him instead, and that’s where this movie takes shape.
It’s like every character in this is variably trapped in, adhering to, or striving to maintain a certain kind of role/path, almost like planetary orbits, and the stuff of the drama comes from when they swing near each other on their arcs and their various gravitational pulls start fucking with each other’s tides. Except, crucially, for Peter—until, thrillingly, Peter, who is like this icy little rogue meteor just cruising through independent of any of these set loops. A sort of chaos vector coming in at his own angles, and, unbounded, the only one whose journey will just continue on out of this star system—out of the Western, we might have it.
One way you could read this movie is as a conflict between different eras of historic queerness as represented by Peter and Phil. It’s fascinating considering that Phil, a fine-boned Harvard educated classicist & rich kid, early 20th century America’s analogue of, well, Benedict Cumberbatch, is only able to achieve the finessed level of aggro masculine charisma he does in playing his adopted role of rough & ruthless rancher, because of how adept he has had to become at navigating a world of people like this as a closeted gay man. The reason Cumberbatch works so well for me here is that it’s good that you should always feel, just a little bit, that he’s trying to fit a character. He should be very credible in it, but there should always be that slight rigidity of effort.
That ramrod-straight swagger and defensively flint-sharp eye of Phil Burbank has made him virtually indestructible, unassailable—until Peter wanders in not following his known laws of physics. And this is not just a joke about the non-Euclidean geometry of Kodi Smit-McPhee. But that’s the thing actually, that’s something I kept thinking about: that Peter looks like that. He just looks like that. He was born with this form that makes it impossible for him to just exist neutrally in a space, because, as Emily put it, he looks like an Edward Gorey drawing. There’s no dissembling his vibe, he’s simply going to appear as he appears in 1920s Montana, spindly and effete and bone white, and either through strategic bravery or sheer sociopathy he doesn’t particularly seem to care, and this fucks up Phil’s whole mode.
We weren’t prepared for Peter; Phil super wasn’t prepared for Peter. He’s not queer in any of the ways Phil has known. Jody shared with us the incredible tidbit that Bronco Henry’s bodybuilding magazines are real historic objects, the man on the covers a famous man who basically invented bodybuilding culture in America around the turn of the 20th century. So Phil inheriting & treasuring this stash of Physical Culture mags that are now several decades out of date is just another neat way of capturing how he has essentially been living in stasis, building up a cult of nostalgia among the ranch hands centered around his own worship of Bronco Henry, a man whose time has since passed. Bronco Henry was of the old west, and Peter is of the new, and caught in between and as vicious as a trapped animal, is Phil.
But if Peter represents a more modern queerness to Phil’s, it’s once again so fascinating that, cue joke, his queerness is in its murder era. The combination of calculated planning and fluid adaptability that has set him up so well for survival also sets him up to be so so deadly. His thin hands are just as skilled at constructing layered paper flowers as they are dissecting a rabbit he’s snared. He is characterized by a certain delicacy, but to twist the Siken, delicacy that comes not from the absence of violence, but in the execution of it. For instance, something Jody pointed out later that caught me by the throat: Peter putting the cigarette to Phil’s lips in the barn was for distraction of course, but also because he can’t touch anything Phil touches as soon as he puts his hands on the poisoned rawhide. Which also means that whole night Peter has to play a seduction where he can’t ever let Phil touch his own skin, or he’s dead too. THAT kind of delicacy.
And what makes The Power of the Dog such a masterwork, is that all the elements of the filmcraft is operating at this same level. I have become such a fan of cinematographer Ari Wegner, who also shot this year’s seamy Twitter noir Zola (at this point I’m just tossing genres down on the table like cards), and the beautifully chilly & strange Florence Pugh break-out Lady Macbeth, where she would set up her camera framing a static shot in a room and the characters would then just move within it in the scene—except for when Pugh would escape onto the cold brown coastal hills of Northumberland, and then Wegner’s camera would break loose to move with her in the wind. She is a fantastic collaborator for Jane Campion, is what this all means, who also loves a frame and a landscape, and adorably seems to have set out to find a DP bestie and found one in Ari Wegner, who was delighted to come along with her on a whole year of location scouting and prep. The mountain shots they’ve come up with simply…whip ass. Shadows moving over the rippled hillsides with some unplaceable menace. Tawny slopes framed through blowing curtains in an open window evoking American painter Andrew Wyeth, my beloved, which in turn evokes the legendary Roger Deakins’ cinematography on The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, where he named Wyeth as a key influence.
And on the score, Jonny Greenwood, back for his second this year; our luck! And not least because new Jonny Greenwood scores mean new disarmingly endearing Jonny Greenwood interviews. When he cited as one of his own key influences the original Star Trek’s use of brass in alien landscapes, I about fell over. I promise we’d begun the Trek As Western conversation well before then! But actually the parts of his score that I was most captured by weren’t the “pent up masculinity” of the French horns, but that unusual plucking cello, and a melody for piano or strings that I couldn’t shake the feeling that I recognized. It is not, I have checked, but my heart kept asking if it was some part of the Days Of Heaven score outside of that Camille Saint-Saëns piece. I think what’s probably really going on is that in Greenwood’s efforts to pare back his usual instinct (“for all that it should embarrass me”) for lush romanticism, he’s ended up with a sort of elusive distillation of romantic westerns of the past. Something spare and kind of searching, like a cold wind coming down over the hills, tugging at your clothes and your memory. It feels right that one of the tracks is named ‘West Alone’.
But bringing all of these pieces of mystery and sublimity together: Jane Campion, simply one of our best living directors. She has an incredibly fine eye for people and environments, and people in environments, and an incredibly fine hand in crafting moments in them of such pure unsettling surprise. She is a master at building out just these indelible little weirdos, who will do the most atonal, human things that will stick with you the rest of your life. Her works are so unexpected, and yet…I don’t even know what the word is. It’s like the more her characters veer strangely off paths the more they reveal some sort of raw ore of humanity within them, burnished from long holding by cupped hands and rib bones. Her characters have secrets. In fact sometimes her actors have secrets even from her, like Kodi Smit-McPhee and Kirsten Dunst sidling onto set with their conspiratorial little secret headcanon about what Peter and Rose could be keeping secret themselves. You two….I absolutely love this as an acting method.
Which of course brings us to maybe the main takeaway: HUGE year for hot stressed moms & their tall skinny uncanny sons against the world. Do not mess with this year’s mom & son duos, they will see your ass in pieces against a staggering natural backdrop or this isn’t a 2021 film adaptation. GREAT THEME.