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All power to the dog? Or a coda to the movies themselves?
Benedict Cumberbatch holding flammable flowers in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog
I freely admit that the Academy Awards are largely meaningless. Ranking films is pretty silly to begin with; there’s no “best” picture, no “best” performance. These things are inherently subjective and, inasmuch as they do have meaning as a description of how influential or lasting a work of art proves, can by definition only become clear with time.
Oscar’s commercial significance isn’t nugatory, but a golden statue no longer guarantees a big box office bump, and the commercial side of film is now dominated by the kinds of films that by and large will never be considered for awards outside of technical categories. Their cultural significance has dwindled almost to irrelevance for much the same reason. Outside of franchises like the MCU or Star Wars—which I would argue are a fundamentally different art form—film simply doesn’t have remotely the cultural reach it once had. Gone With the Wind and The Godfather not only reflected but shaped our national consciousness. Film simply can’t do that anymore. I stopped worrying long ago that the pictures have gotten small. That’s just the way things go, and it doesn’t stop us from loving small, beautiful films that are absolutely still getting made.
Of course, that doesn’t mean I’m sanguine, or that I think there’s nothing to be done. Ross Douthat makes some small but sensible suggestions for the latter here, to which I would add intellectual property reform so that movies can’t be simply “disappeared” because nobody knows where the rights are the owners want material hidden. But even if we succeed in preserving, promulgating and extending our film heritage, that won’t be enough to bring film back to the cultural force it once was, because the world only spins forward.
So why do I still care about the Academy Awards, when they were always silly and never meant less? I guess because movies still mean something to me, and the awards are the highest-profile opportunity to argue about them in pointless and stupid ways, and to root for my favorite team. I don’t always have one, but I do this year.
If I had an Oscar ballot, my first choice for Best Picture would have been Drive My Car, which I found gorgeous, moving, artistically distinctive but also classically “Oscar” in its emotional tone and themes of love and grief and the process of making art. But it’s not going to win, and the ballot is ranked-choice, so what would really have mattered would have been my second or subsequent choices. And my second choice would have been The Power of the Dog.
That’s not to knock CODA, which informed observers are saying has at least an even shot at winning, and which I enjoyed more than most of the nominated films. (Full disclosure: I saw eight of the ten Best Picture nominees, skipping only Don’t Look Up and Nightmare Alley because I didn’t expect to like them; overall, I’ve seen half of the films nominated for any award—not including the short films, none of which I’ve seen yet, sadly.) It’s a well-made and moving film that deserves to be seen for Troy Kotsur’s performance alone, for which I am absolutely rooting for him to win an Oscar. But it’s also quite predictable and familiar in its beats, and isn’t doing anything particularly interesting with the medium. The Father and Sound of Metal (which I wrote about here), both nominated last year, are far more interesting as films without being any larger in scale.
The Power of the Dog is also a small movie in terms of scope—it’s a domestic story, really—but it paints on a big cinematographic canvas. It’s innovative, particularly in terms of story structure, eschewing the classic Aristotelian well-made play and three-act form for something more fluid and evasive. Precisely because of that unusual structure, the film repeatedly surprised me, and in ways that drew me further and further in. Finally it’s “about” something big, namely the American western.
I’ll outline the story and my shifting expectations while watching it, because that’s the best way to demonstrate the story’s complexity and its narrative workings. At its outset, The Power of the Dog appears to be about the Burbank brothers: Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons), wealthy ranchers in Montana in the 1920s. Phil is nasty and domineering, but is also the one who stays closest to the land and the animals. George, who is quieter, gentler, and seems to be more the money man, clearly needs to get out from under his thumb. When George meets and marries a widowed innkeeper, Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), it looks like she—or her shy, paper-flower-making son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee)—will be the catalyst for change, the source of conflict between the brothers that will force George to throw off his brother’s yoke.
She is indeed the source of conflict: Phil tells her to her face she’s just a gold-digger, but his true animus runs deeper, rooted a hatred of all things feminine and domestic. That’s why he also has contempt for her son as a sissy. But George does not fulfill what looked to be his narrative role. Instead, he goes away on business, Peter goes off to study medicine, and the film turns into a Gothic horror story, Rose trapped alone in this big house with Phil, who torment her psychologically, aiming to break her spirit.
At that point, I saw Rose as the protagonist, and figured she would have to muster the resources to fight or flee. But she doesn’t. Instead, Peter comes back—no longer a fragile flower, if he ever really was, but a man of science. He quickly sees what is happening in his family: that his mother has become an alcoholic, that her husband George has failed to defend her, and that Phil has come to dominate them both completely. Peter observes, and as he observes he plans. A crucial scene lets us see just how coldly he can do so: he catches a rabbit, seemingly for a pet, cuddling with it gently, but later he is found dissecting it matter-of-factly in his room, explaining that he needed practice for his medical studies.
So Peter becomes the protagonist and the genre shifts to more of a thriller. He sets his sights on Phil, follows him to a secret spot where he finds a trove of picture postcards of buff men showing off their masculine fitness. He follows further, and spies on Phil swimming naked except for a precious scarf (more on that), when Phil spots him, and drives him off in a rage. Peter now knows a dangerous secret, and I fully expected Phil, and the film, to turn violent in response. But once again, I was surprised. Instead of turning violent, Phil turns seductive. They got off on the wrong foot, he tells Peter; he wants to help him. Help him do what? Become a man. And Peter responds, allowing himself to be taken under Phil’s wing to learn from him, to be, apparently, seduced by him, away from his mother (who is terrified by this development) and towards the kind of manhood that Phil has striven to represent.
My apprehension, at this point, was whether Phil was only pretending to seduce Peter, aiming to destroy him, or whether he was still aiming to destroy Rose, only now by seducing her son. But while Phil thinks he’s seducing Peter, in fact, Peter is seducing Phil: coldly manipulating him, playing on his emotions, until he has him in a place where he can cause his death without anyone realizing what he has done. The last shot of the film shows Peter looking down on his mother and stepfather as they return from Phil’s funeral. He has protected her, as nobody else would, something he promised to do in the very first lines of the film, a fact that I had completely forgotten until that point.
That’s the story. I said that it was “about” the western—I pointedly didn’t say that it was a western, because I’m not sure it is. The western, classically, is about the relationship between violence and order on the frontier. The man of violence is necessary to carve space for civilization out of the wilderness, but with the coming of civilization his time of necessity passes. First his violence is tragically necessary, and then his obsolescence makes us feel the tragedy of the loss of his distinctive virtues.
If that’s the story The Power of the Dog is telling, then who is that tragic man of violence? It would seem to be Phil—but on closer look, Phil doesn’t really fit the mold. Phil is a misanthropic loner—so was Rooster Cogburn in True Grit. He was once in love—also a classic cowboy trope—in his case with a man named Bronco Henry, his mentor in western ways, and the only human being who he talks about with any affection. He keeps Bronco’s saddle as a shrine, wears his silk scarf in that swimming scene, and in general behaves as if the light has gone out of the world with Henry’s passing. Calling him a gay man is anachronistic, but it’s reasonable shorthand inasmuch as his only love was for another man, and that love was clearly physical. But it is also dead and gone. Phil is a man who has loved, lost, and been embittered. (I have seen it suggested that perhaps Phil wasn’t in love with Bronco Henry but was raped by him; I didn’t catch any evidence of that in the film, but if that’s the case then the darkness of his character has a far more lurid sheen. I prefer not to believe that interpretation, but if forced to accept it I don’t think it alters the thrust of my point.) None of that stands in the way of Phil being a classic cowboy hero.
But there is something off about Phil, and it isn’t his love of Bronco. A number of critics—most prominently the great western actor Sam Elliott—have taken issue with his character, and with the story, as being inauthentic, and harped in particular on the ways he seems transparently and stereotypically gay. They’ve contrasted the film with Brokeback Mountain and its depiction of love between cowboys in a social context that required it be kept secret, saying that those men seemed far more rooted in their place. But of course Phil is inauthentic, because he’s not a real cowboy. As we learn in the film, Phil studied classics at Yale before coming out to Montana to ranch. He’s a wealthy man: he lives in a huge mansion, his brother wears fine clothes. His choice to live and look as if he’s always on the trail, to reject the trappings of civilization as excessively feminine, is an affectation. On some level his whole life is an affectation.
It was an affectation chosen deliberately, though, and in tune with the times. The film isn’t set in the 1880s, like the typical western; it’s set in the 1920s, after the closing of the frontier, at a time when American intellectuals brooded about Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis and what it meant for the American character that the era of the frontier was over. It was a period of anxiety about masculinity and the ethic of self-reliance in the context of industrialization. Lucien Lucius Nunn had founded Deep Springs College in the Mojave Desert only a few years before, aiming to inculcate precisely that ethic in a new generation of male leaders. All of that is in the background of Phil Burbank’s decision, years before the film begins, to leave Yale and become a cowboy.
It’s also in the background of the popularity of the western in American cinema. The western’s enduring popularity is intimately related to our own anxieties about losing the classically masculine stoicism and violence of the western hero, and what that loss might mean for our ability to sustain our own civilization. But the western film itself is not carved out of the wilderness; it’s a product of civilization, and its heroes are actors. As such, it’s inherently artificial, inauthentic. If Sam Elliott thinks Benedict Cumberbatch was too affected, he should watch John Wayne walk some time; if he thinks the film was too codedly gay, he should re-watch Red River. My point is not that that Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t affected in his performance, but that it’s a deliberate choice because Phil Burbank is acting a part, just as John Wayne and Montgomery Clift were.
Like a western, The Power of the Dog is about the relationship between violence and civilization. But it’s not about that relationship in the context of the taming of the frontier but in the context of anxieties about the frontier being closed. Phil Burbank isn’t violent because he needs to be; he’s violent because he needs to be. There’s a lot that’s been said about “toxic masculinity” as the target of The Power of the Dog, and it’s not a term I love. But it’s true that what animates Phil, what keeps him going is an idea, and it’s an idea masculinity. Fundamentally, Phil is animated by a kind of nostalgia that unites his dead lover, Bronco, with the western frontier itself, and that nostalgia has turned him into a misanthrope and an enemy of civilization. His tragedy is not that his time has past, but that he’s actively trying to live in a past that was gone before he got there.
I said that in its final act The Power of the Dog is a tragedy, and I think that’s correct. From the villain he has been for most of the film, Phil Burbank transforms into a tragic hero, undone by his very humanity. He is seduced by the prospect of love, this time with him as the older man and mentor, the role Bronco Henry played for him in his youth, and Peter as the young mentee in the ways of the west and of male love. After a lifetime of bitterness, he’s given a chance to taste the cup of happiness again, but it’s a poisoned chalice. There’s deep pathos in the fact that Phil had backed himself, psychologically, into a corner where tenderness was so alien that he could be easily undone by someone willing and able to wield it as a weapon.
What does it say about Peter, though, that he is willing to do so? If The Power of the Dog is a commentary on the western, then Peter represents a new kind of violence: scientific and purposeful. Peter is brave, risking his own life to put his murderous plan into action. He also clearly and sincerely cares for his mother, and would do anything to protect her. But where Phil is hot, Peter is cold. As Peter confesses to Phil at one point, his father—whose body Peter found hanging, dead—used to worry that he wasn’t kind enough, that he was too strong. Phil scoffs (that was the moment when I realized Phil was the one being seduced, and not Peter) but Peter is telling the truth, just like the killer is supposed to do before he kills his victim.
Watching Peter at the end of the film, looking down his mother and stepfather, knowing, as they do not, that he is the killer who guards their peace, I felt a chill go down my spine. And that’s the kind of thing the movies are for, isn’t it?
In the end, I might have rooted for The Power of the Dog just because Jane Campion has made so many enemies with this film, from conservative nostalgists outraged at this “desecration” of the western genre, to gay men angry at a film that portrays its two gay men (is Peter gay? I’m not sure how we can know) as respectively a tyrant and a murderer, to the legions of fans of the Williams sisters. But that’s a trollish reason to root. The truth is this was an ambitious film, the kind of thing I can’t stop thinking about. It’s not for everyone—but neither are the Oscars, anymore. If they can’t reward films for being important cultural events, at least they can reward them for striving for artistic importance. The Power of the Dog certainly does that.
Wrapping the Rest of the Awards
Apart from Best Picture, I have a rooting interest in the following awards:
I don’t really care who wins Best Director so long as it isn’t Steven Spielberg, because I was very disappointed with West Side Story.
Andrew Garfield did an amazing job in tick, tick . . . BOOM! which, as a movie, I really didn’t love, in large part because I don’t love Jonathan Larson’s work, so it’s particularly impressive that Garfield could keep me in the experience when he was playing Larson. So I’d be happy to see him recognized, but I won’t be upset at all if Will Smith wins for King Richard, since his performance is even more completely the reason to see that film than Garfield’s is for his.
I haven’t seen enough of the films that the Best Actress nominees were in, but I did see Spencer and I am rooting for Kristen Stewart because she’s wonderful in it, whether or not that’s what Princess Diana was like.
I am 100% behind Troy Kotsur for Best Supporting Actor in Coda.
Ariana DeBose is apparently a lock to win Best Supporting Actress for West Side Story, and that is fine by me; she’s excellent in it, even if I didn’t like the film.
I liked Licorice Pizza better than I probably had any reason to, and I am a big Paul Thomas Anderson fan generally, so Original Screenplay where I’m rooting for him to get some love.
Adapted Screenplay is like Best Picture: if I were voting, I’d vote for Drive My Car, but I assume it won’t win so I’ll be rooting for The Power of the Dog.
For Cinematography, you know, Dune is truly spectacular, and distinctive, and I liked that film much better than I thought I might. But I’m still rooting for The Power of the Dog because I so appreciate a movie that isn’t a spectacle that is shot so beautifully.
International Feature goes to Drive My Car, obviously.
I don’t have a strong view on Documentary Feature; I assume Summer of Soul, which I enjoyed enormously, will win, and that would be fine.
I’m going to stop there because the Academy doesn’t think the crafts matter so why should I? (No, actually in some cases I haven’t seen enough of the nominated films, and in other cases I just don’t have a strong rooting interest.)
The World Elsewhere
My main occupations this week related to working toward getting my own feature off the ground—more on that in future posts—so this right here is my only post for the Substack this week. I also had only one column at The Week, which was about Ketanji Brown Jackson’s nomination:
In 2016, then-President Barack Obama interviewed Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson as a possible Supreme Court nominee after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. He wound up opting instead for Merrick Garland, then chief judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, who cut a more conservative figure in multiple ways: He had more years of experience as a judge, had risen to a higher position within the federal judiciary, and, of course, was a white man.
Like many members of the judiciary, Garland also had experience as a prosecutor, both in the D.C. U.S. Attorney's Office and as associate deputy attorney general under Deputy Attorney General Jamie Gorelick. By contrast, Jackson was a rare member of the judiciary who had served as a public defender.
Garland would be denied even the courtesy of a hearing on his nomination; now Jackson, however tough her questioning, is very likely to be approved by a Democratic-controlled Senate, perhaps even with a handful of dissenting Republican votes. For the vast majority of senators, all that matters about a nominee is what party they come from.
Political orientation certainly does matter, but it's not the only thing that does. The distinctive characteristics of each nominee can profoundly shape the arguments they make, both in chambers with the other justices, and in public. That's why I'm so pleased that, if confirmed, Jackson would be the first Supreme Court Justice with a background in public defense.
It's not that I think public defenders are always right, nor that I think America's judicial system is uniformly too tough on crime. I do think the rarity of her experience in this area makes her particularly valuable to the court; it's precisely the kind of diversity that matters most. But my interest goes beyond that. I worry that, as a culture, we're starting to forget the very concept of the right to a defense.
As always, I encourage you to read the whole thing.