Rated R for cruelty, sexuality, nudity, violence, gore, and language. It's not like these moments are necessarily exploitative. It's just that it is a misery of a film and that's what it is going for. When a movie goes so out of its way to stress that the world is a terrible place, there's going to be a fair amount of adult content. R.
DIRECTOR: Jane Campion
SAY "BRONCO HENRY" ONE MORE TIME!
Okay, that was the gag that I kept shouting during the movie. I'll be honest, I didn't have many hopes for this movie. I know. It hits all the buttons it should and I love myself the modern Western. But I saw this and smelled Oscar bait all over it. You would think that someone who likes the Academy Awards so much would be cool with Oscar bait, but it just rubbed me the wrong way this time. So we saved it for later. Part of that came with the fact that it was on Netflix and that my mom could watch it separately. But that was probably just a justification for wanting to watch other things.
And when I watched the first half of this movie, I thought that my initial opinion of it was right. As pretty as the movie was and as solid as the performances were, I found myself nodding off. We had to take a break because it was just so slow and so bleak that I didn't even find myself enjoying it. I may have nodded off for thirty seconds before I confessed to my wife that I was tired. She, too, felt the same way. After all, we've seen these characters before. We've seen the broken human being like Phil and Benedict Cumberbatch play shades of Phil in other things. He's really good at it, which is probably why he's cast in this film. But it also makes it slightly less compelling. But the bigger point is that this trope was exploited so many times in so many other movies. After all, I thought I was watching Call Me By Your Name set in the Old West. And based on my hypocrisy with Licorice Pizza, you know how I feel about that.
But that's what makes The Power of the Dog so absolutely brilliant. Again, we're going into hardcore spoiler territory here, so beware. The fact that the last five minutes flipped the trope pretty hard is a level of genius that I was not ready for. The Power of the Dog's slowness forces its audience to reassure itself that this is one kind of movie when it is quite a different kind of film. Instead of being a gritty and bleak romance between horrible people, it is a condemnation of abuse hiding in plain sight. I mean, say what you will for slow pacing, the movie does actively telegraph the ending if you knew what to look for. We've reached a point in the conversation about boundaries and rights that we weren't able to talk about before. Toxicity regardless of excuse is still evil and that's The Power of the Dog.
Phil starts the film utterly unlikable. He's borderline evil. He enjoys torturing the weak and effeminate because he himself is a closeted gay man, groomed by a presumable toxic. That cyclical nature of relationships is teased throughout. But Phil also likes destroying things because they can be destroyed. When Phil burns the paper flower that Peter made, he did it just to make Peter sad. When he sees Rose start to break down, he does everything that he can to encourage that downward smile. His whistling makes something that Rose enjoys something poisonous to her. The notion of music drives her into an alcoholic tumult. Heck, there's a very real chance that the only reason that he gives Peter any positive attention is to drive Rose even more mad. Like many romantic stories, heteronormative or otherwise, has one of the protagonists undergo a moral change due to their encounter with the other. Phil, in his charade of seducing Peter, might actually show the glimmer of hope for a positive outcome. When he shows traits like Bronco Henry (SAY IT ONE MORE TIME!), there's an odd respect for this kid that he dismissed and it is implied that he develops real feelings, both emotional and sexual.
Campion uses Phil's dynamic characterization to tease that this is going to be an ongoing cycle of effeminate men embracing their evil natures to find love in people weaker than them. When we discover that there is something truly demented about Peter, it is haunting. Because the problem that Peter has isn't with Phil's attraction to him. This isn't a condemnation of being gay. This is a condemnation for the predator / prey relationship that Phil has started. I have to make comparisons to Bryan Singer or Kevin Spacey, whose public coming out was expected to be met with applause, but rather revealed a troubling behavior of selfish sexual acts towards minors. It's all there. Peter tells the story of how his father was an alcoholic until the end. We see that Rose has suffered, running a restaurant and abandoning her dreams for the sake of survival. It's heavily implied that Peter killed his father because it was assumed that he was weak. He kills Phil using his intellect. Because Peter is aware that strength is not one thing. He straight up tells Phil that he is strong and Phil can't possibly understand that. It's the murmuring of a child screaming at a tornado. But Peter is right. The slow almost erotic donning of gloves (which I'm trying to tie to Rose and the Native Americans who give her gloves, but I can't quite tie it together) shows his true nature and the fact that his actual personality is quite deviant.
This is what Promising Young Woman wanted to be. I'm so sorry to put so much weight on Promising Young Woman, but there was an expectation that wasn't quite met for me. There's a visceral image of castration in the film and, despite the fact that Phil complete the actual act, that metaphorical role falls to Peter, the one who doesn't fail and hurt himself in the process. It's a far more haunting moment in film when Peter is simply coiling the rope, gloved the entire time.
I compare The Power of the Dog to Arrival. Both movies, while watching them, I dismissed. They seemed like they were well-made, but kind of dull. But both movies carried something far heavier all the way through that was only revealed at the absolute last moment. As long and as slow as The Power of the Dog was, I wouldn't mind watching it knowing what I know. Campion ranges from teasing me with moments to full on slapping me in the face with the finale and it is masterful.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.