Montana, 1925. George and Phil own and run a sizeable ranch. George wears a suit, bow tie and bowler, has a sensible moustache, and people take him to be a little backwards. Phil, his brother, once studied Classics at Yale, but now prefers to hang around with the lads. He’s never happier than when he’s castrating a bull with his bare hands. When the Governor comes to visit, George orders Phil to have a bath as he normally stinks, so Phil boycotts the event.
Phil is obnoxious to pretty much everyone he meets, insisting on calling his brother “fatso”. When George marries Rose, who runs a restaurant they pass through, Phil makes it his mission to fully undermine her and her son Peter – who is about to go off and study medicine. She used to be a professional pianist, but with the help of his banjo, Phil destroys her confidence to play. Meanwhile he encourages the lads to denigrate Peter with homophobic sneers.
George is away a lot on business, and while he is away Phil’s taunts drive Rose to drink. Although the frail Peter is initially intimidated by Phil, hiding in his room whenever he can, Phil then takes him under his wing and suddenly the relationship between them starts to thaw. Phil tells Peter stories about his hero and mentor, Bronco Henry and they go out riding together. At least until Phil gets a fatal infection.
And that is just about it. Not a lot happens in The Power of the Dog, which is maybe what we should expect from a Jane Campion film. There are lots of shots of beautiful landscapes – New Zealand posing as 1920s Montana – but there’s not much in terms of character development. Or story, Or anything really.
That’s not entirely true. There are various pieces of Meaningful Imagery and hints that things are going on beneath the surface. To avoid giving away plot spoilers (can you have a plot spoiler when there wasn’t much of a plot to start with?) there are intimations that some people’s sexuality isn’t what it pretends to be, but these are not much more than intimations. You get the feeling that you’re being let into an in-joke, an act which usually carries with it a degree of smug superiority.
It doesn’t help – well, it doesn’t help me – that this is a Western. Now I know that only a stupid person would say that they don’t like any Westerns – how could they say this of a genre that includes High Noon and Blazing Saddles? But, tendentially, I don’t find most Westerns that interesting. They are too male, too rooted in a period of history that doesn’t really interest me, too interested in the minutia of a life on the range that never ever appealed to me.
(having said this, I am really looking forward to seeing The Harder They Fall, the Black Western starring Idris Elba. But my anticipation is because it really seems that this one will truly subvert the genre, whereas The Power of the Dog is – for better or worse – a Western by numbers. Which, as said is great if you like that sort of thing, but I don’t. Not really).
Interestingly, a quick look at IMDB shows quite different reactions to The Power of the Dog from critics and “audience”. The critics seem to have pretty much universally loved the film. The audience response is split between those who revel in a masterpiece and people asking “what was the point of that?” with little middle ground. This is something that can happen in films who’s merit is that they are largely self-referential, but my sympathies almost always lie with the latter group.
And, according to type, most of the performances here are indeed great, and – if we try hard enough – we can eke out some sort of comment on the human condition. But does any real person – anyone who doesn’t earn their money having to find enough words to write about a film – really go to the pictures with this in mind? Most of us go, looking at something that will amuse or inform us. And I can’t see where The Power of the Dog really does either of these.
So, I can see why someone would gain enjoyment from The Power of the Dog, At the same time, if you are one of these people, I just fear that you are woefully wrong.