Of Dogs and Men

(Mild spoilers for ‘The Power of the Dog’ included)

Now, that will have got a reaction. Harry Styles, who, I’m heartened to see, is now heading off in all kinds of directions rather than the somewhat limited ‘one’ of his former band, is wearing a tutu. And there are other times when he dresses more like a woman than a ‘proper ruddy fella’. You can almost smell the fury…

Something about a man in a dress is guaranteed to make men uncomfortable; men who now feel that their very existence is under attack from feminists and gays and trans-wotsits. (Oh, and students. And men who write poetry. And men who don’t like sport. And men who don’t like cars, or rock music, or Goodfellas, or who let a woman drive them around, or who question anything the country may have done militarily over the last 100 years). And most women, obviously.

But they never stop to ask why. Why does it bother them so much when another man decides that, instead of pulling on jeans and trainers, he’s going to wear a dress? Or make-up? Because it really does bother them. It actually makes them angry. Angry enough to vote for Trump, or Farage, or just about anyone who will make them feel secure in their identity.

Men compete with other men and this is true from the school playground to the workplace. If you’re not the Alpha in the room, you have to at least try. You challenge, either directly, through just being the loudest or the most attractive to females, or indirectly by a more subtle undermining or sarcasm.

Now, if I came across someone like Phil, the staunchly masculine character played brilliantly by Benedict Cumberbatch in Jane Campion’s new movie ‘The Power of the Dog,’ (out on Netflix from 1st December) then I might find it difficult to make much of a challenge at all. As he rides into town at the head of his cattle herd, effortlessly guiding his horse with one hand whilst he rolls a cigarette with the other, he’s already put the testosterone meter needle into the red. His brother, George rides alongside him. Played by Jesse Plemons in a turn which is so placid it’s almost comatose, George is overweight, taciturn. He wears a suit, even on horseback, and a daft bowler hat. Phil, ever the Alpha, even calls him ‘Fatso’ to his face with no response. This relationship, however, is an early illustration of some of the complexity to come. These are not your typical loose-livin’, punch-throwin’ quick-drawin’ cowboys of myth. One of them is trying to be just that. The other seems to be more accepting of reality. And one of them might just be gay.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil: the ‘Dog’s’ bollocks…

Added into this study of masculinity is Peter, a quiet, introverted young man, who enjoys making paper flowers and keeps a scrapbook of images including women in pretty dresses. In other words, he is the other extreme to Phil’s rugged machismo and every bit as much of a stereotype. Except he isn’t. And neither is Phil. Instead, as the film progresses, so does our understanding of two complex men.

This is a fascinating movie. It is Jane Campion’s attempt to explore the questions posed above: What is it with men? Why the desire to match up to only one ideal of manhood? What is the cost of all this repression? These are ideas she has explored before but less directly. In ‘Top Of The Lake’, her enthralling TV series for the BBC (now also available on Netflix) the toxic masculinity is presented as an open wound in New Zealand’s very soul. It is both horrifying and challenging. But ‘The Power Of The Dog’ approaches the issue as one which has infected America too. It pokes the corpse of that most American of myths, the cowboy, and watches the whole shebang crumble. I almost feel like providing a trigger warning for white men, particularly those who are distressed at female Doctor Whos or the fact that Captain Marvel was a woman.

For a film set as the Western myths are dying, male creativity is a surprising motif and it is a thread which torments Cumberbatch’s Phil. He is a superb banjo player with what appears to be a perfect ear so we can presume he is a naturally talented musician. In a clever piece of detailed characterisation Phil is clearly fine with the banjo, forever the romantic sound of men being men in the Wild West. But God forbid anyone tries to play the goddamned piano, or, as Phil (deliberately) mispronounces it ‘pernana’. That mispronunciation is even more telling when we learn that Phil graduated from Harvard after studying Classics. Not your everyday cowboy then…

He expertly winds together strips of cowhide to make rope, twisting the strips ever tighter, pulling together the loose strands to make a complete, durable whole. Campion examines this process in a series of close-ups, as Phil works. Perhaps because it matters to Phil; he can create something hard and durable out of the soft individual strips. A construct, just as he is, built of ‘softer’ stuff but terrified to reveal it. The craft of the rope is given greater poignancy by the end of the movie.

The film is bursting with tension, a tension which Jonny Greenwood’s superb score creates and then extends; it’s as though your nerves are the tightly-plucked pizzicato violin and guitar strings, the motifs circling and drifting without ever finding resolution. Throughout, we await the inevitable explosion of violence. We crave it because we’ve all seen westerns before and we know what happens. We crave the catharsis of male violence. But it never comes. Unlike Unforgiven, another exploration of the myth of the male, we do not get a release. In that film, the violence served as the moral; it was shocking to see William Munny succumb to his urges for drink and then violence. But that movie had its cake and ate it by showing that violence has consequences and that violent men are not heroes whilst still revelling in the questionable satisfaction the viewer feels when Munny opens fire. There is no such catharsis for the viewer in ‘Power of the Dog.’ Here, the tension is not so much external as it is internal, a suppression of feeling which is crippling Phil, and which is perhaps only released with his death.

‘Phil’ is a lie. Everything about him is forced; he is a construct, a shield built around a highly intelligent, sensitive, complex man. Interestingly, so too is Peter, in a way. The film studies these ‘constructed’ identities over and over again. Rose, the only developed female character in the movie, is wilting under the expectations of her new husband as she tries to be what he wants her to be. Her personality is forced upon her by men; Phil terrifies her, George wants more from her. Perhaps the most upsetting scene in the film comes when Rose is forced in a squirmingly difficult, passive-aggressive way, to play piano for distinguished guests. Watching Dunst’s performance as she crumbles under the expectation, is an edifying experience. Unsurprisingly, Rose is at her happiest at the beginning of the film, when she is running a small guesthouse with only Peter for company.

But it is in the juxtaposition of Phil and Peter that the film truly fascinates. I don’t think Campion, or Thomas Savage who wrote the novel on which the film is based, have answers. It is a film which raises questions; you will undoubtedly want to talk about it afterwards.

Just like Harry Styles. If the picture of a man in a tutu or Jane Campion’s film challenge us as men, then we need to ask why. And maybe, for once, consider whether we are the ones with the problem…

Agree with me? Don’t agree with me? Just want to put down some thoughts about the film? I’d love to hear them. Click on ‘Leave a Comment’ at the top left of the screen to, you know, leave a comment…

5 thoughts on “Of Dogs and Men”

  1. This might have been one I’d skip over to get to some easy going entertainment, but after reading this, it’s gone on the ‘play list’.

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  2. I had lost full interest by the end of the movie. I felt that Peter had somehow caused Phil to be infected by anthrax through affecting the rope/whip construction. I was distracted enough to not pick up details of this, and while keen to confirm this idea, or otherwise, I can’t be bothered watching it again. Can you please advise if this was the conveyed outcome??
    I find the story of the stereotypical tough guy battling underlying and mostly hidden homosexual tendencies, particularly as I am a worker in the mining industry, something that is quite obvious, over done in storytelling, and quite boring, however productions with similar themes are always critiqued as brilliant (especially in Sydney newspapers). An example was a production of Hamlet a few years ago from the perspective of Hamlet as a gay man. (Sorry, can’t recall details of the production). Anyway, Power of the Dog I thought, was disappointing.

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    1. Hi Clam. Thanks for the comment. Do you remember Peter finding the dead cow and cutting at it? He knows it’s died because of the anthrax poisoning. That’s where he got the strips of leather that he then gives to Phil to make the rope. So, yeah, it is a calculated murder. Sorry that you didn’t enjoy it as much as me. It is a slow burn. I enjoyed the complexities of the characters. Obviously, I can’t speak for Sydney critics!

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      1. I have to say I pushed on through it whilst those around me became increasingly engrossed in their mobile phones. Although I think I did actually snooze for a few mins in there somewhere, I did make it to the end and then found myself thinking about it on and off for days after (but had no one to talk to about it!). So I don’t think I ‘enjoyed’ it, but yet I did… quite perplexing!)

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      2. I think seeing it in a cinema definitely made a difference for me, Mel. I tend to commit more to a movie if I’ve made the effort to go out for it! Having said that, I did have to be woken up in a screening of Evita once – apparently my snoring was spoiling it for the audience. Can’t think why…

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