‘What kind of man would I be if I didn’t defend my mother?” asks a gay male character, explaining why he killed another gay male, in The Power of the Dog. Only Jane Campion’s status as a female director of art movies allows this appalling film to go uncriticized for its queer-baiting and man-hating — all in the name of defending a woman.
Refusing a straightforward feminist argument, Campion inflates a generational rivalry between the Burbank brothers, ranchers in 1925 Montana. A series of vague, mannered episodes suggest that something ominous about American history is about to be revealed.
Stark intertitles demarcate the slow-paced chapters, and Campion’s deliberately incoherent editing fractures the interplay of brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and brother George (Jesse Plemons). Cryptic fragments show George’s wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her son from a previous marriage, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), roaming in uncommunicative isolation. The obvious split between masculine, feminine, and implicitly unmasculine is key to Campion’s pompous storytelling. What critic John Demetry correctly exposed as “pseudo-feminist” is Campion’s brand.
But the brand helps sell Campion’s half-baked conceits. For some, she got away with it in 1993’s The Piano, a bodice-ripper set in her native New Zealand and so considered exotic, maybe romantic. But the American setting exposes Campion’s affectations about Western culture. Her vicious polemics are plain to see. In The Power of the Dog she’s moved from The Piano’s way-late feminism to an even more dated anti-Americanism. (Arnaud Desplechin, a superior art-filmmaker, avoided such banality in his 2013 Plains Indian epic Jimmy P.)
This time Campion adds a religious (in fact, heretical) gloss to her fakery with her film’s title, which appropriates a biblical quote (Psalm 22). But she uses a secular metric for each character. This would be the ultimate example of moral hypocrisy except that Campion finds morality nowhere. The Burbank brothers, their kin, their employees, visiting business people and politicians, and nearby Indians occupy a godless world. They’re all passing enigmas or clichés, take your pick.
Campion flirts with “spirituality,” but sexuality is her preferred device by which she categorizes people and their deeds: Masculine means distant, cruel, and domineering, like secretive Phil and ineffectual George. Feminine means weak and oppressed, like Rose and Peter.
The emphasis placed on Phil’s weirdness rather than Peter’s proves Campion’s judgment of toxic masculinity. Phil’s antisocial bluster peaks with the depraved assertion that he likes his own “stink.” (Phil is to be avoided, not feared, but Cumberbatch’s impersonation of Daniel Day-Lewis’s Daniel Plainview, in There Will Be Blood, embarrasses Day-Lewis’s histrionics. As figures of American toxic masculinity and racism, both characters stink.) However, Campion seems most suspicious of Phil’s leering yet covert homosexuality, which she contrasts with young Peter’s ladylike timidity, despite implied sexual impropriety between the two. She also contrasts Phil’s lechery with Peter’s meekness, the latter somehow privileged by Campion as simply misunderstood. Her story shifts from female victimhood to gay male victimhood and then declares gay male hatred and violence as inevitable and justified.
Campion’s incongruous plot twists can pass for profundity in an era ignorant of both American history and film history. She evokes the long Western narratives of Giant, Days of Heaven, and There Will Be Blood, then plagiarizes the feminist Westerns Meek’s Cutoff and First Cow. Out of her depth, she can’t relate to history or people with the authority that made Justin Kurzel’s True History of the Kelly Gang a terrific and terrifying epic about masculine misadventure.
Campion’s nihilistic Americana recalls the pictorial phoniness of Road to Perdition, and it’s not even genuinely perverse. It’s her own gender bias that is depraved, assuming the power of the feminist mongrel.