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Camping with Campion

Jane Campion’s Power of the Dog, now out on NetFlix, recognizes no borders. It’s a Western that crosses the frontiers of geography, genre, and gender with unapologetic, well-funded ease.

Set in 1920s Montana, the film was shot in the director’s native New Zealand, its grasses, trees, rocks, and streamable streams imported to wide screen and/or iPhone from another hemisphere. Humans can play other humans, even adopting an accent foreign to their own, as Brit Benedict Cumberbatch does in the growl of the mean American Plainsman Phil Burbank. Why can’t landscapes do the same?  When that Antipodean Hill, stared into the shape of the eponymous Dog by furious Phil, can’t muster enough Method to become Montana, then CGI can supply the requisite emotion and trouble the mountain’s brow with a dusting of ominous snow.

Equally international and artistic, Jonny Greenwood’s score grazes freely on the rich pastures of yet another continent:  Mitteleuropa Calling!

The sweep of the film’s landscape yearns for the full orchestral treatment, but such forces must have been difficult to corral during Covid. Instead, Greenwood rounds up a posse of strings—cellos and violas—and drives them into sublime disquiet.  There are no massed human voices like those Ennio Morricone marshaled in his rightly celebrated Western scores. Greenwood’s music for The Power of the Dog is purely instrumental. Even on screen no one sings.

Yet the soundtrack attains a Wagnerian grandeur that works in magnificent contrast to Campion’s kitsch.

That penchant for kitsch is most obvious in the name of a departed wrangler:  Bronco Henry.  In a holy alcove of the Burbank barn his saddle is set on its stand with polished brass plaque in his honor.  There it can be venerated, caressed and ridden. Bronco was the older man who showed the youthful Phil, who studied Classics at Yale, how to make leather ropes and whips, and taught him other necessary skills. Phil’s dearest keepsake is Bronco’s diaphanous bandana. The naked Phil sniffs and fondles the kerchief on his own private creek bank, bathed in sunlight and a halo of soundtrack strings.  Downstream a couple dozen naked cowboys splash and frolic. Stretched out in nude profile on the bare back of a chestnut mare, one of these handsome youths gets more than his recommended daily allowance of Vitamin D. There may be no campfires in this cowboy movie, but The Power of the Dog gives us a Campion at her campiest.

Greenwood is up to the task of lending gravity to these and other cowboy hijinks that owe more to Mel Brooks than to John Ford. Into the film’s opening shot, the camera peering out of the darkened barn into the glare of the ranch’s holding pen, we see bowlegged Phil stride. The restive arpeggios recall the opening theme of Hud and its similarly vicious anti-hero (Paul Newman) of the post-Manifest Destiny West.  In The Power of the Dog that cowboy guitar has been replaced by rarefied cello.

From these fraught beginnings Greenwood’s score evolves towards greater complexity across each of the film’s five chapters: a string quartet that is all Expressionist angst; sustained chords that evoke Nature as yet untrammeled by the rapacious desires of men; a horn calling from the Swiss Alps across the American grasslands, then heard again with the cello’s fateful pluckings as the drama canters towards its conclusion.

These musical topics retain their chamber quality both for the outdoor vistas and the dark interiors. Greenwood’s refinements are perfectly tailored to a movie whose men can dress in chaps and tuxedos, though not at the same time (given Campion’s exaggerations, such a combo wouldn’t have surprised me).  The Power of the Dog is less cowboy saga than drawing room drama, and the scenes of highest tension are played out not in barn or back forty, but inside a grand house which looks like it should be overlooking the Long Island Sound not an ersatz Bitter Root Range.

Into that richly paneled and darkly beamed mansion ranch hands carry a glistening rosewood Mason & Hamlin piano—a full-bodied grand that represents an upgrade from the square model that Campion deposited on the fatal shores of New Zealand in her 1993 film, The Piano set a century before her latest production.

Skill at a keyboard instrument during the nineteenth century of The Piano was a sign of womanly accomplishment, and also a way for men to keep the fairer sex caged in the domestic space.  In literally dismantling her square piano, Holly Hunter’s character freed her sexuality and musical fantasy (given the unfortunate form of a New Age rhapsody by Michael Nyman) played with abandon and lots of pedal by Hunter herself.

The grand piano in The Power of the Dog is wielded as a misogynistic weapon, its harms inflicted by the player on herself.  Phil’s brother George (Jesse Plemons), derisively nicknamed “Fatso” by Phil, has gone and got himself a new wife called Rose (Kirsten Dunst). He wants his bride to play in the family manse after a formal dinner there with the state’s governor (Keith Carradine) and his own parents, who live in an unnamed city.  Rose is nervous and out of practice, but George insists. She’s his property now.

Before the guests arrive Rose nervously practices her number—that warhorse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Radetzky March, a piece that is still trotted out every New Year’s Day by the Vienna Philharmonic. How this curvetting stallion made its way to Montana is anyone’s guess. Its strains—even in the troubled and partial attempts forced out of Rose—might just foretell the doom of the Burbank Dynasty. It was only seven years earlier at the end of World War I that the Hapsburgs had been turfed out of their Central European spread by republican claim jumpers.

That Phil will have issues with his brother’s new wife is clear from the first minute of the film when we see the brothers settle in for the night in a shared room, sleeping alongside each other in what are clearly their boyhood beds.

As Rose stumbles and frets her way through the Mitteleuropean March in the middle of Montana, Phil prowls the upstairs corridor, spurs jangling on the hardwood. He whistles snatches of the tune derisively down on his new sister-in-law.  This is a duel not a duet.  Even these gracious strains penned by Johann “Blue Danube” Strauss can be weaponized to deliver a soul-seeking violence.

After humiliating his adversary melodically, Phil finishes her off by grabbing his banjo and launching into a virtuosic Radetzky riff. It’s the movie’s only shootout, fragments of melody, not bullets, flying.

No, Phil is not at all happy about sharing his ranch and his brother with the new addition to the family. Still more troubling, the new wife brings with her a teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). He’s lank, pale, pomaded, and extra-effete, made to push these traits way over the top by Campion’s direction. This city-slicker of a dude not only wears a brand new ten-gallon hat of pristine white but matching Wimbledon-ready tennis shoes too.

After early humiliations of Peter by Phil, the two strike up an unlikely friendship and head out to explore the ranch together. The horn calls again, now troubled by those persistent, portentous cellos. There has already been blood from a rabbit trapped and dissected by creepy Peter, and there might just be more.

In these and other ways Greenwood’s soundtrack provides the antidote to the film’s many repurposed clichés. But for all its modernist seriousness, the score can’t help but be infected by Campion’s camp.  Wagner dressed in women’s stockings, stroked lush fabrics and spritzed his composing room with perfume as he created his own musical sagas with their manly heroes. Those operas ride the knife edge between profundity and hilarity, as the many parodies that slide down the latter side have demonstrated. Whether this cinematic Dog is mortally wounded by that sharp weapon will depend largely on how one sees and hears its fascinating counterpoint of music and moving image.

(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical Notebooks. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com.)

2 Comments

  1. john ignoffo December 19, 2021

    I much enjoyed the flic, but missed the importance of the music! Kudos on the review. (Often Mr. Yearsley’s reviews are over my head.) I’ll have to watch it again. Thanks for skipping the spoiler alert/spoiler.

    • Lazarus December 19, 2021

      The conclusion although, some might see it as a beginning, is worth the time spent, a little over two hours.
      Happy Christmas,
      Laz

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