By Michael Sicinski
Formalist though I may be, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to separate any given film from its association with Netflix. This is especially the case during awards season, as Netflix is throwing away obscene amounts of money on tacky gift boxes for critics and Academy members. The lavishly illustrated catalogues that depict every aspect of a given production might make good doorstops, but affording films like The Hand of God the sort of coffee-table treatment usually reserved for Frida Kahlo and Vincent van Gogh seems a little cocky. Few viewers have laid eyes on these films, yet Netflix provides all the trappings of classic-film monumentality.
But ironically, the company may have stumbled upon a kind of formalist reality with respect to the films themselves. In the marketing department’s focus on eye-catching swag, they have actually identified some essential traits of the works they are promoting. Unlike the other awards hopefuls, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog is not repped by an ostentatious picture book. Instead, the promotional package includes three items: a copy of Thomas Savage’s 1967 source novel; a rose fashioned out of the pages of an old cookbook; and a keychain made of braided rope.
In other words, Netflix intuitively recognizes that the essential power of Campion’s new film is embedded in specific objects, and the exchange, movement, and destruction of those objects. Although this claim may sound vaguely Bressonian, calling to mind the materialist focus of films like Pickpocket (1959) or L’argent (1983), Campion’s use of objects is radically different. The Power of the Dog is an exceedingly Freudian film: it seethes with unconscious impulses that are utterly foreign to Bresson’s anti-psychological cinema. In fact, the best comparison might be to Douglas Sirk, whose use of emotionally weighted props—the miniature oil derrick Dorothy Malone fondles in Written on the Wind (1956), or the rejected Black baby doll in Imitation of Life (1959)—swerves quite clear of rank symbolism, instead providing something akin to Walter Benjamin’s “dialectical image,” a concrete artifact of historical relations.
At the same time, The Power of the Dog is driven by Oedipal desires and inarticulate impulses, and in this regard it’s necessary to consider Freud’s original formulation of the fetish object. In his remarkably brief 1927 essay on fetishism, Freud explains that the sexual fixation on objects is the result of a disavowal mechanism, whereby the fetishist denies the horror of castration anxiety by substituting a given prop (shoes, lingerie, even the lover’s nose) for the “missing” phallus. It’s certainly notable that the opening passages of Savage’s novel provide a terse but suggestive description of rancher Phil Burbank castrating bulls, making a quick incision and yanking the testicles right out.
There is such a castration scene in the film as well, but, unlike Savage, Campion does not make it a controlling metaphor: it happens near the one-hour mark, and she folds it into the overall fabric of the work such that it simply resembles another facet of cowboy work. But more than this, the film version of The Power of the Dog expands this idea of the fetish, distributing its energy among many different objects. Following Freudian logic, Campion’s film is characterized by the substitution of objects, and, in keeping with the director’s feminist perspective on dysfunctional masculinity, the “real” object of castration (the bull’s discarded nuts) carries no essential weight—it’s just a thing, positioned in a field of other, equally laden things.
Set in 1925 Montana, The Power of the Dog is essentially about the merging of two families, both of which are screwed up from top to bottom. The Burbank brothers, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons), have amassed some wealth by running a successful ranch. Although their parents are still alive, the men function as one another’s primary family unit, although the mostly undifferentiated crew of ranch hands also provides Phil with an expanded set of kinship relations. For Phil, these men are positioned somewhere between brothers and sons, which subtly underlines the compromised familial bonds that crisscross the entire film. Phil and George share a bedroom, and have a fraternal relationship defined by Phil’s cruel aggression and George’s passivity and introspection.
This is disrupted when George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widow whose husband, an alcoholic doctor, committed suicide five years earlier. She has a rather discomfiting bond with her effeminate teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), doting on him while expecting his surrogate male companionship in return. When George weds Rose, Phil clearly sees it as a betrayal: he goes out of his way to excoriate Rose, and leads the cowhands in mocking Peter. Mostly they call him “Miss Nancy,” and one of them goes as far as calling him a “faggot”—not nearly the transgression in 1925 that it is today, but Campion still has the man hurl it with full contemporary weight.
Phil’s first encounter with Rose and Peter occurs after a cattle drive, when he and the crew have supper at the small-town restaurant/brothel where Rose runs the kitchen. Peter has adorned the cowboys’ dinner table with handmade paper flowers, little craftworks we had previously seen him constructing meticulously. Phil notices them immediately, asking after “the little lady who made these.” Peter pipes up that they are his, inviting widespread ridicule. Focusing his cruelty on Peter’s delicate object, Phil sets a paper rose on fire, lighting it with his cigarette and then snuffing it out in a pitcher of water.
After an unplanned encounter at the lake, where Peter spies Phil having a naked rendezvous with his late mentor Bronco Henry’s monogrammed scarf (another salient object), Phil lets his guard down and attempts to act as a surrogate father/big brother/something less savoury toward Peter. In this moment of rapprochement, Phil shows Peter something much more manly to do with this hands than making origami flora: he is engaged in braiding strips of cowhide into a rope, which he offers to give to Peter when it’s finished. While the rope appears to be a benign gift at first, it eventually becomes both a sexually charged talisman and, possibly, a murder weapon. When Rose defies Phil by giving his hides to some travelling Indians, he has a breakdown that suggests he’s been the victim of more than theft: “They were mine,” Phil rages to his nonplussed brother, on the verge of tears at this violation. And when Peter offers Phil a suitable substitute object—a hide he skinned from a dead cow on the range—Cumberbatch plays the moment as if he were on the receiving end of a declaration of love. Phil makes a vow to the young man: “It’s going to be clear sailing for you from now on.”
It is hardly incidental that Peter’s father committed suicide by hanging: the boy had to cut his father down, and within the psychoanalytic economy of The Power of the Dog, this is as close as one can get to castration-as-birthright. Phil intends to repurpose rope as a phallic object, one with which he will woo the boy, inculcating him into the non-“sissy” (read: anti-feminine), hard-riding physicality that Bronco Henry introduced to him.
In her book Between Men,Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick made a distinction between homosexuality and homosociality: the first denotes love between men, the second the fraternity of an all-male realm. Sedgwick understood that these spheres often intersected, but Campion’s film is a bit more radical, effacing the boundary almost completely. It is no accident that interactions between brothers, fathers and sons, or male bosses and their younger subordinates all seem to occupy a nebulous, indefinable zone. Just as the interactions between Phil and George resemble those of a married couple, and Rose, especially when drunk, treats Peter as her “man,” the evolving bond between Phil and Peter is never explicitly defined. If we interpret it as fatherly affection, we are no doubt being naive; if we immediately understand it as a pederast grooming a vulnerable young boy, we risk projecting our own fears and perversions onto figures from the past. By making certain core relationships undecidable, Campion not only offers us a richer, more complex film text, but also displays a remarkable understanding of the unconscious.
In other words, Phil, Rose, and Peter are not simply concealing their desires and motivations—rather, they themselves are not fully cognizant of them. While this is very clear in the case of Rose, whose psyche is degraded by neurosis and drink, Peter’s presence in Phil’s life produces conflicting reactions. He mercilessly teases Peter at first, perhaps seeing in the boy his own worst fears, a negative imago for gay identity. But eventually, he sees Peter as an opportunity—though for what is never completely clear.
Meanwhile, Peter, whose burgeoning sexuality is suggested but never pinned down, is perhaps “too tough,” as his dead father had surmised. It’s a notion Phil finds literally laughable, but Campion and Smit-McPhee keep the character at a chilly remove. More than any of the others, it is possible that Peter sees all the pieces and how they fit together. (He is a surgeon in training, after all, dispassionately dissecting rabbits to understand how they work.) If Phil is indeed grooming Peter, it’s possible that Peter both toys with the older man’s desires—an erotically shared cigarette, for example—while quietly plotting his demise. This could be a rejection of Phil’s sexual overtures, but it may also serve as a traumatic reinscription of his own father’s death. That was a symbolic castration he merely stumbled upon; the latter death—dealt by the braided rope itself—is one over which Peter maintains total control.
Many of the objects Campion distributes throughout the film—the rope, the paper flowers, the saddle horn—are unmissably freighted with import, while others are considerably more subtle. The dishtowel, for instance, draped over Peter’s arm as he waits on the cowboys’ table (“For wine drips”) is another emblem of feminization; but near the end of the film, when Phil’s body is shaven and prepared for burial, we notice that the undertaker has a cloth draped over his arm, just as Peter did. Far more delicate than Phil’s cowhides, these towels nonetheless hold the power of effeminacy/castration, an underestimated force that eventually ushers Phil into death.
While I suppose the film could be construed as a referendum on toxic masculinity, I’m not at all sure that this is what’s going on here. Campion is an artist who has long been deeply committed to examining patriarchy in its various guises: Harvey Keitel’s arrogant cult deprogrammer in Holy Smoke! (1999); Mark Ruffalo’s horndog police detective in In the Cut (2003), devoted to uncovering the “truth” of female sexual deviance; and, of course, male power in its most naked form with the act of femicide at the core of her TV series Top of the Lake (2013/2017). Of course, Campion’s most direct statement on patriarchy and women’s oppression may still be The Piano (1993), a film that sentences its heroine to silence but reconfigures that voicelessness as defiance, a refusal to allow her subject position to be known, categorized, or exploited.
In The Piano, the eponymous object serves as Ada’s (Holly Hunter) voice. It is weighty, unwieldy, and subtly aggressive—it takes up space. In an effort to demand Ada’s submission, her husband (Sam Neill) attempts a near-literal castration, severing her index finger to render her “mute”; but her lover (Keitel) provides her with a prosthetic digit, as if to prove that castration is only a threat for those who subscribe to the logic of the phallus in the first place. Campion slyly introduces a piano in The Power of the Dog as a similarly weighted object, but in this case it is an instrument of oppression: George is excited by the fact that Rose once played the piano (for the cinema, it should be noted), as if this false characteristic makes her cultured enough to deserve his love. In fact, Rose is placed in a position not so different from Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), the singer-in-quotes second wife in Citizen Kane (1941): George gives Rose a baby grand, and she ends up humiliating herself when she cannot play well enough for George’s parents and the governor of Montana (Keith Carradine).
Compared with other Campion films, the relative marginality of The Power of the Dog’s primary woman character is rather unusual. But, in taking on the trappings of the Western, Campion seems to be tackling patriarchy from the other direction: How are men like Phil made, she asks, and what kind of man will Peter turn out to be? In considering the etiology of American male privilege, The Power of the Dog not only diagnoses the dysfunctions of classical masculinity, but also suggests that, under better circumstances, it might have all been different. Then again, much as Paul Thomas Anderson did in There Will Be Blood, Campion depicts these dangerous male neuroses, and the perversion of fatherhood and kinship, as concomitant with the establishment of Gilded Age capitalism.
And again, like those other films that share in the project of demythologizing the American West, The Power of the Dog attends to the land itself, reminding us of its permanence in the face of transitory human occupation. The cinematic consideration of the landscape, after all, is the most radical, progressive aspect of John Ford’s essential works. Monument Valley stands as a silent, impassive witness to westward expansion and white supremacy, rebuking it with a sublimity that impresses itself upon Ford’s characters even as their actions suggest the land is little more than a challenge of manhood.
In The Power of the Dog, the landscape is similarly foreign to the human plight: long shots of the Montana hills punctuate moments of crisis in the film, almost like a Greek chorus of utter indifference. But the ability to see the land, to bend it to one’s desires and imagination, is a line of continuity linking Bronco Henry, Phil, and finally Peter. The cowhands are in awe of Phil’s ability to “see things” in the distant mountains, and at first we think he may have superhuman vision. But later, when Phil asks Peter what he sees and the latter identifies a hill as looking like a barking dog, Phil is astonished by the boy’s visionary capabilities: “You just saw that?” he enthuses.
Here and elsewhere in the film, Campion intimates that there is a thin line between reverence for the landscape and the masculinist/capitalist drive to subdue it, to reduce it to a field of dreams. And the land, like the other objects of negotiation between Phil and Peter, is not simply handed down—the psychic register of the fetish object is altered in the exchange. There will be no assignation on the hilltop. The saddle will go unpolished. The rope, having done its job, is hidden away under the bed, removed from circulation. However it may have happened—naiveté, manipulation, revenge, or even another, inchoate form of perversion—Peter breaks the cycle. He is not an object fetishist; he is a user of tools.