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Oscars 2022: Envy and Desire in "The Power of the Dog"

We continue with the second of our reviews of the 2022 Oscar nominees. This time it's the turn of "The Power of the Dog", by Jane Campion

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Photo: Netflix

LatinAmerican Post | Juliana Rodríguez Pabón

We continue the list of nominees with "The Power of the Dog". This is a film by New Zealand director Jane Campion, also recognized for another film applauded by the Academy: “The Piano”. "The power of the dog" is a western that follows the complicated relationship of four characters. Phil and George are two brothers who own a ranch. Phil is a rude and cold man like the other men who work with him. George, on the other hand, is sweeter and quieter. The second falls in love with the widow of a suicide bomber, Rose, and marries her. He arrives at the ranch with his new wife and their son Peter, whom Phil treats with cruelty and ridicule. This film is the adaptation of the homonymous book by Thomas Savage, based on the memories of his rural childhood.

Initially, this is the story of a woman trapped in a world of men. The ranchers in the place where she now lives with her husband are cruel and mocking. There is a general contempt for sweetness and care, for delicacy. Her husband is respected just for being the owner of the ranch. Her brother-in-law Phil has been cruel to her since before she arrived at the ranch and seems to be the most macho of these men: he tortures and mortifies her.

This hostile environment makes Rose, played by Kirsten Dunst, feel sad and somewhat abandoned by her husband, left in a place where sensitivity is forbidden. However, it's really quite the opposite: the character of Phil, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is obviously jealous. As the minutes go by, we realize that this man has feelings: that he feels excluded and envious. Ultimately, he feels lonely.

Jane Campion, however, is not satisfied with the mere victimization of her female characters. As she did in “The Piano”, here he is not satisfied with representing this masculine world but wants to decipher it. She bravely asks the question about cruelty and here he turns the story around.

Envy turned into desire

In the fourth chapter of the film, Peter, Rose's son, arrives at the ranch. This is a shy and delicate boy, opposed to the masculinity codes of the place. Of course, when he arrives he is mocked by the ranchers. By then, his mother is already in a state of decline and he can see how this is a consequence of Phil's hostility and George's abandonment.

The film places special emphasis on the work to which each person is dedicated and this establishes tensions between increasingly closer opposites. Let me explain: Phil is a cowboy, he rides a horse, he castrates cattle without wearing gloves; Peter wants to be a surgeon, he makes paper flowers. It seems that, on one side, we can locate the rough, the rough work, and on the other, the delicate and meticulous, work in detail. However, the film allows us to see how these tasks are not necessarily contrary nor do they give, so simply, clues about the personality of each one.

Thus, whoever castrates cattle also braids ropes, makes handicrafts; and whoever makes little paper flowers, dissects rabbits. Over the course of the film, Phil and Peter's personality traits are revealed to us as these two characters grow closer to each other. Who used to pity us, begins to scare us, and who previously seemed cruel to us, begins to arouse compassion.

The director and the two actors, Benedict Cumberbatch and Kodi Smith-McPhee have managed to turn these two characters around and challenge our first impression of each one. (Here I suggest the reader who has not seen the movie stop reading because I will comment on the ending). The character of Peter seduces us in the same way that he seduces Phil. Quickly this insightful boy realizes that he can have great power over Phil because Phil envies him. What could Phil envy Peter? In one scene, Phil sees how Peter is indifferent to the other ranchers' taunts, he realizes that this boy doesn't care if they call him a little man and begins to respect him.

All of this is barely suggested in the film but is very well represented. Phil wants what Peter has so much (perhaps true masculinity), that he starts to want him. And Peter is not indifferent to this, he takes advantage of it. With a surgeon's calculation, then, the boy frees his mother from Phil's hostility and plays with him, making him believe that he is his savior and a father figure (with whom Phil would also be obsessed). "The Power of the Dog" knows very well how to unravel the knot that makes up Phil's apparent evil, his jealousy, his envy, and his loneliness. Campion dares to show in this film that evil and sensitivity are not antonyms but close.

Also read: Oscars 2022: “Don't look up”, the Comedy of the End of the World

Will it win the Oscar?

"The Power of the Dog" has great chances of winning the awards that refer to the form, as in the categories of clothing and photography. It's a beautifully shot western, in which wide-open landscape shots play a key role. However, it is unlikely to win Best Picture, as good as it is, it is subtle and perverse. The Academy usually rewards films that have a clear message, either in the form of a moral or a claim, so "The Power of the Dog", with its mystery, will not win this award.