The Power of the Slog

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog.

I settled in and decided I’d watch Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog last night. The Power of the Slog is more like it. It had a few memorable moments, and I think it’s interesting, if not as a film, exactly, as a cultural artifact. 

(There are some spoilers coming, so if you’re gonna read on get ready.)

There’s very little dramatic tension in the overall plot, where it’s needed – it meanders, occasionally sways or staggers, and the characters reveal themselves mostly through insinuation – but there are some scenes where the tension is crushing (I loved the dueling banjo-“pinano,” and the scene where Kirsten Dunst’s hopeless Rose is forced to play for the governor).

There are many more where the performances, especially Benedict Cumbersnatch’s Phil, with his anachronistic idiomatic expressions steeped in a weirdly modern sarcasm, border on camp. Make no mistake, Phil is a camp character. High camp. The dialogue is 98% atrocious, but the decision to, I assume, lift it straight from the dated source material, aligns with the dime store novel depiction of human emotional life throughout.  This is basically a midcentury slasher with all those old midcentury gay undercurrents, disguised as a highbrow “queer take” on the Western. 

Phil can always be found doing something gay-by-implication: sinking giant phallic posts for a border fence, lovingly massaging his “daddy” Bronco Henry’s saddle, which he keeps in a shrine in the barn that he runs to when he hears his brother and his brother’s wife consummating their marriage through the bedroom wall. Whether its slathering himself in mud and fondling his daddy fetishes while lying naked in the tall grass or hanging out braiding rope out of animal flesh or castrating bulls by hand —  without gloves on! — dude is queer af. 

His flinty, cruelty-laced obsession with twinky young Peter, which is the irritant that keeps the movie squirmy with its will-they-or-won’t-they, at times feels like a horrible nightmare version of Call Me By Your Name. Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Peter, who appears to be in a love-hate (spoiler alert, turns out to be just hate) relationship with Phil, is likewise campily queered from scene one, where he is seen making dainty paper flowers out of old newspapers, and scrapbooking like a teenage girl with a vision board. 

All of the little hints and symbols seem sweetly and then tediously and then comically retrograde (the book it’s based on was written in 1967, supposedly based on a true story, and the source material, even for a period piece set much earlier — in the 1920s — feels of its time). 

The final scenes land with a thud, not only because after two hours we are none the wiser as to the actual motivations of any of the characters, with no real insight into their inner lives, but because it regurgitates not one, but two outdated and harmful stereotypes: the tragic repressed queen, who ends up looking very pretty in his casket, and the evil twink with an unnatural attachment to his mother, circa Tony Perkins in Psycho (whom Smit-McPhee loosely based his character on). The fact that this is supposedly a serious movie by a filmmaker with intellectual inclinations, and that it is pretty to look at at times, doesn’t alter the fact, for me, that it’s a greatest hits of warmed-over (internalized) homophobic tropes.

(There’s a lot I could say about the book author’s limited options when the book was written for working with these themes, but lifting them from the book for this film without any new insights simply replicates these limitations.)

Having said all that. There are some exquisitely awkward scenes that give The Lost Daughter, another recent release that dwells in this squirmy depths of psychosexual awkwardness, a run for its money. In some ways, although these movies obviously started production prior to the pandemic, their depictions of the terminal ickiness of human interaction, and the often clumsy symbolic language they use to imply emotional deeper depths, is of our moment. 

Olivia Colman in the Lost Daughter.

The social awkwardness and the use of emotional avatars when human interaction has become hopelessly incomprehensible seems apt for our times. Our artifacts — a box of old physique magazines, a waterlogged doll — tell us more in a moment than we ourselves can tell in words. And telling *that* story — the story of our artifacts telling our stories better than we can — also takes longer than just a quick peer into the box, or a quick glimpse at the insta, than two-hours of unraveling plot that leads us back to the opening scene anyway. Both of these movies fetishize the terminal awkwardness of our terminal times, each with a dead symbolic language no better than silence.

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