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Kevin Fullam writesThe Fourth Wall: The Power of the Dog

Welcome to The Fourth Wall, CHIRP's e-conversation on cinema. This week's subject is the 2021 film The Power of the Dog.

This edition is written by CHIRP Radio volunteers Kevin Fullam and Clarence Ewing.

Clarence Ewing:

In the opening scenes of Jane Campion’s 2021 Oscar-nominated film The Power of the Dog, the audience is treated to a familiar site in movie history: a good old-fashioned cattle drive. It’s 1925, and a group of herders leads a river of beef along the lonesome trail, nothing but blue skies and open scenery for miles. Not many Hollywood images get more American than that.

The group is led by two brothers, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemmons). Although the men under his command like and respect him, it’s obvious that Phil is a walking mix of tension and bile. If something annoys him, he’ll let that something know it, whether it’s his less-aggressive brother who he constantly insults and belittles, or the skinny, awkward-looking young man who serves the crew dinner one day at a hotel along the trail (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and who is the son of the establishment’s owner Rose (Kirsten Dunst).

Along the way, other names are mentioned: Old Lady and Old Gent Burbank. The Governor. Bronco Henry. The audience gets more details of these characters and how they relate to each other. Phil is a constant presence in everyone’s life, whether he’s physically there or not, and that fact drives the other characters’ actions and events forward.

It’s already been put out there that the theme of this movie is Toxic Masculinity. I don’t want to put up too many more specifics, as it would spoil the appreciation of how the story unfolds. Suffice to say that even for a genre that has been thoroughly deconstructed by modern filmmakers in the last few decades (Unforgiven, Brokeback Mountain, The Assassination of Jesse James…, No Country For Old Men), this movie stands out for its approach to topics society is still dealing with today.

Also, it’s just a thoroughly brilliant movie all around. I like the way Campion, in the best sense, makes the audience work to figure out what’s going on. The only way to do that is to remember the few words that are exchanged while closely observing the actors’ faces and watching their actions as they react to a whole lot of, shall we say, issues that hang about the characters like ghosts, whether it's inside the house or out in the fields.

It felt like most of the lines of dialogue were eight words or less. This economy of words allows silence and stillness to shape much of the action. Even when the movie builds to a pretty shocking climax, the events don’t feel out of place with what came before or the overall mood of interiority (I’ve been wanting to use that word in a movie review…!).

All four of the leads did outstanding jobs with their roles. Cinematography? Gorgeous. Music? Truly unique with a built-In cool factor. (After all, it was composed and performed by Johnny Greenwood, lead guitar player for Radiohead).

But enough gushing from me. Kevin, what did you think of it? Do you watch many Westerns? Any favorites come to mind? And have you seen any other of Campion’s films? This is her first one in 12 years.

Kevin Fullam:

Clarence, I often joke that if we ever reverted to an agrarian economy, I'd be hard-pressed to put supper on the table. The Ol' West is rather majestic, of course -- the sweeping vistas, the open air, the call of nature... but I'd be even more out of place in that environment than Jesse Plemons' George in The Power of the Dog. However, despite the abuse he takes at the hands of his brother, George did manage to bend the frontier to his will a bit? After marrying Rose, he classes up his home with a fancy piano, and earns enough social status that he winds up hobnobbing with esteemed politicians like Governor Edwards (Keith Carradine, certainly no stranger to the genre). Small victories.

There are some egregious gaps in my sphere of cinema knowledge -- and "Traditional Westerns" would be one of them. Is it shameful to admit having seen only one John Wayne film? (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, also starring Jimmy Stewart). Ditto with Clint Eastwood's gunslinger oeuvre (Unforgiven, far from the days of The Man With No Name). Of course, as you mentioned, the genre has been deconstructed and re-interpreted throughout the years, and many critics view my all-time favorite action movie, The Road Warrior, as a Western. The tropes are all there, from the besieged villagers to the taciturn anti-hero, albeit adapted to a post-apocalyptic setting.

[We did discuss Westworld in this very blog a while back, but most of our conversation revolved around the behind-the-scenes AI as opposed to the faux-frontier.]

I've also seen the entirety of HBO's Deadwood, David Milch's tour de force about life in a prospecting Dakota town. Another deconstruction, perhaps? I couldn't help but think of how starkly different environs breed starkly different politics. In Deadwood, as in most Westerns, people who aren't "tough" didn't last very long. Even if there was a sheriff in town (which in Frontier America was far from certain), the law existed to punish evildoers, not rescue you from immediate troubles. Self-reliance was the order of the day. In Bill James' book Popular Crime, the author mentions how, a century ago, if one man killed another man in a fight and the police were notified, the first question they asked was, "Was the fight fair?" Different times.

Top of the Lake is the only Campion production I'd seen prior to this film; somehow, The Piano slipped through the cracks, but I'll be remedying this in the near future. Like you, I thought Campion was masterful at adhering to a "show, don't tell" filmmaking ethos that respects an audience's ability to piece together Phil's backstory. And throughout the final act, there's a slow-burn dread that ratchets up as Phil makes amends with Rose's son Peter, and the pair spend more time together. Even though we know that nothing good will come of it, the events that transpire are, as you say, shocking.

SPOILERS: What did you think of Peter's actions? Payback for earlier abuse? I got the distinct sense that Phil would abuse Peter -- if not kill him outright -- when the two of them rode out together, and I had zero trust in the notion that Phil had truly come around and was trying to do right by Peter. Was Peter being "groomed" in a sense?

You mentioned "toxic masculinity," which has become a catchphrase these days, even though the vast majority of today's men find themselves involved in work far removed from the rugged worlds of cattle-driving and agriculture. Google defines TM as "a set of attitudes and ways of behaving stereotypically associated with or expected of men, regarded as having a negative impact on men and on society as a whole." Hmm. The implication is that men, simply by being men, are bad for society? 

I might counter that "masculinity" and "femininity" could be instead seen as double-edged swords, while arguing that there's never been a period in human history where men are as civilized as they are today -- we're still marching down the long road away from lawlessness, not towards it. Is there such a thing as Non-Toxic Masculinity? What would this resemble? Perhaps John Wayne's Tom Doniphon as opposed to Liberty Valance

And yes, via Valence, I just equated Lee Marvin, one of Hollywood's legendary "tough guys," with Benedict Cumberbatch. That we totally buy this Englishman as an uber-gritty rancher is praise of the highest order for Cumberbatch's acting chops. Can you think of other instances where Hollywood stars went completely "against type," with stunning success?

Clarence:

One example that immediately comes to mind is from the movie Don’t Look Up, which is competing with The Power of the Dog for Best Picture this year. That film’s main character is Leonardo DiCaprio, one of the few legit A-List actors left in Hollywood, playing a role that requires him to be an awkward and timid “beta male,” unlike his other roles where he is very much The Man in character and persona.

It was an effective performance. I didn’t love that movie, but I liked it more than many critics who pegged it as so much smug moralizing. I think in its portrayals of how media and government figures might react to an imminent life-or-death situation, that movie may have cut a little bit too close to home for people who work in those industries.

As far as examples of Non-Toxic Masculinity, that's a great question you pose. Russell Crowe comes to mind as Captain Jack in Master and Commander: The Far side of the World. He’s a thoughtful, capable Leader of Men who still has feelings and isn’t afraid to be compassionate. The various vessel commanders in the Star Trek universe (Kirk, Piccard, Sisco) also fit that rather idealized balance of Masculinity and Humanity.

Star Trek has been described as “a Western in Space,” which shows how easy it is to adapt the basic ideas of that genre to different kinds of stories. It also doesn’t hurt that Western genre itself is pretty much 100% an entertainment industry fiction. Like any other popular myth, it flatters the people telling it, reinforcing ideas of toughness, self-reliance, justice, and Manifest Destiny (aka “Everything worth having belongs to us”).

It’s a high standard to live up to, and one that many American men have been trying to project in different ways for centuries. In psychology there is a concept of overcompensation as a defense mechanism against feelings of inadequacy, loss, or failure. To me, this idea explains Phil very well, as he wraps himself up in his Lone Wolf / Marlboro Man persona to cover up his twin terrors of (a) losing his brother, his only source of genuine love and human connection, to a wife, and (b) having people find out who he really is. This is, after all, 1920s Montana. It’s not like there is anywhere Phil can go to explore what he’s clearly feeling.

When Peter and Phil rode off to spend time alone together, I assumed Phil would try to set up the same relationship with Peter that he had with Bronco Henry, a relationship one can infer went well beyond just being pals. But Peter’s character very much subverts the Western trope of weak, spineless simpletons who provide comic relief and make the Hero seem all the more manly and effective.

By the end of the film, it’s clear that Peter has been paying close attention to everything Phil has been doing to him and others, and in turn is ready to defend his mother while exacting a methodical and clinical kind of payback.

But Peter’s actions also might constitute a kind of toxic masculinity in the degree to which he exacted his vengeance. After all, at the end of the day Phil’s main crime is being an overbearing jerk (abusive, yes, but not violent). Did Peter really need to take things as far as he did?

The thing is, that kind of extreme reaction which generally doesn’t work for other movies I’ve recently seen (like Midsommar) does work in this one, because it’s so well executed. I’m pulling for this movie to take home a bunch of Oscars this year. Do you pay attention to the Academy Awards or other film industry or critic award(s)? What (if any) external sources do you use to determine the quality of a movie before you see it?

Kevin:

Ah, the Academy. Not to sound all highfalutin, but I don't pay much attention to the Oscars these days -- I think something snapped in me when Short Term 12, my favorite film of 2013, got nominated for zilch the following year. Dark days. It made me wonder about how many of those old fogeys had even seen the movie? (S12 director Destin Daniel Cretton eventually graduated to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. So if nothing else, at least he's getting paid?)

I've only seen three of this year's nominees: The Power of the Dog, Belfast, and Drive My Car. The following isn't an indictment of the Academy, but most of the films I prefer these days are naturalist, and free of the sorts of stylized flair that you see in the grand, sweeping epics commonly found among the award-winners. (Belfast would be a prime example of the latter -- I went to an advance screening simply because I had free tickets.) There usually is a film in my wheelhouse that's nominated each year -- such as Boyhood (2013) or Roma (2019), but they hardly ever win. Last year's Nomadland was a pleasant exception... though I do think that director Chloé Zhao's earlier work The Rider was even better.

There's also the matter of the new "Representation and Inclusion Standards for Oscars Eligibility." While I'm all in favor of providing more pathways for minorities to get involved in cinema, the fact that we're saddling art with various hoops to jump through doesn't sit well with me. Perhaps this is a discussion in itself.

How do I assess the quality of films in advance? Rotten Tomatoes is a source that certainly screens out terrible films, though it's not quite as accurate when it comes to recommending ones that I'll dig. By distilling every review down to a binary positive/negative rating, it captures the direction but not the strength of a critic's praise/scorn. So, if every single reviewer gave a film three stars out of four (a positive but not glowing review), the RT score would be 100%. Not exactly helpful.

Another angle is to look at film distributors the same way we look at independent record labels? If I'm watching something from Kino Lorber, Neon, or A24, more often than not, those are going to be stories/styles that are right in my wheelhouse. 

I've always thought that if we used a formula to locate which critics we most closely align with, then those reviewers should be able to pick winners for us. One in particular for me: Sheila O'Malley of RogerEbert.com. No two people's tastes will line up all the time, but she's recommended a slew of indies that I've loved over the past couple of years: The SwerveBlack Bear, Nine Days, and The Lost Daughter, to name a few. Who out there loves both cinema and coding? We can do better than the much-ballyhooed Netflix algorithm

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Categorized: The Fourth Wall

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