Something bothered me in Jane Campion’s film The Power of the Dog, based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same title. I decided to read the novel, which I can now say I prefer to the film. I think what bothered me–I may be wrong, there is something vastly disturbing in the story and I am not sure I have come to the bottom of it–was perhaps the seemingly unanimous praise from critics in the face of some cognitive dissonance that kept gnawing at me. Perhaps we are to take Campion’s film as a commentary on the novel rather than as a straightforward rendition of it, that is, more so in this case than in other cinematographic adaptations of literary works. Whatever the case may be, I was puzzled by what I might call the seemingly cold-hearted sentimentality of the film, the form of its condemnations, its overwhelming judgments, its thetic positioning or self-positioning–compare it to another new film concerned with the effects of hatred on others that is the very opposite of this, Rebecca Hall’s Passing. In the Afterword to the second edition of the novel in 2001 Annie Proulx talks about “repressed homosexuality displayed as homophobia,” but I think it would be better–less homophobic–to say that the novel is rather about the misogyny of a certain loud-mouthed bully who also happens to have repressed his sexuality. Phil is a nasty guy, whatever his virtues. Proulx does not mince her words: “Phil is slender and good-looking; he is brilliant and enormously capable, a great reader, a taxidermist, skilled at braiding rawhide and horsehair, a solver of chess problems, a smith and a metalworker, a collector of arrowheads (even fashioning arrowheads himself with greater skill than any Indian), a banjo player, a fine rider, a builder of hay-stacking beaver-slide derricks, a vivid conversationalist. He is also a high-tempered bully, a harping critic of all around him; he knows unerringly the cruel thing to say, relishes getting people’s goats. He is, in fact, a vicious bitch.”
The central conflict in the novel–also in the film–has to do with Phil’s rejection of Rose, Phil’s brother’s new wife. He is rude to her, unkind, impolite, and Rose can feel his hatred and rejection. For some reason Rose is incapable of dealing with it, of putting up with it, and her life is miserable at the ranch. She feels that Phil is destroying her as a person precisely through his intense lack of recognition: “She couldn’t be anything unless someone believed in her, nothing at all. She could be nothing but what someone believed she was.” This is understandable, it happens to all of us, yet it is not all that happens, mercifully.
As a number of critics have already explained the plot, I am not spoiling anything if I say that the end of the book and the film is Phil’s murder at the hands of Rose’s son, Peter, a kid who is both brilliant and sinister and who decides to get rid of Phil so that her mother’s life can be liberated from her ostensible oppressor. And he does it through a sort of perfect murder, a murder that can hardly be traced back to him. And he does it right at the moment Phil has fallen in love with him, just to deepen the spite and to make the situation more heart-wrenching than it would otherwise have been. Sentimental, yes, but of the cold-hearted kind. No redemption for Phil–forbidden.
Yes, there is no question that Phil is a mean-spirited, destructive, foul bully, and those of us who have had our lives affected one way or another by bullies will have no sympathy for him, whether he falls in love or not. But what must be noticed is that Peter, far from being the sweet avenger of his mother, is a serial killer in the making. He is an assassin, and there is something puzzling in pretending that Phil’s murder is adequate compensation to Phil’s mortification of Rose.
Let me put it this way: Phil himself seeks, through his bullying, Rose’s symbolic assassination. He mortifies her, in the sense that he wants to confine her to death, to disappearance. He wants to cancel her, through a peculiar behavior that we have all become very familiar with on the basis of exposure to contemporary social media. In the film, however, there is a symbolic celebration of cancelling the canceller: cancelling the canceller is the endpoint of the narrative, but also its teleological point, its eskathon. And it is presented as an act of surgery, a medical act–a malignant tumor must be removed from the family body. I think this is what bothers me–as it reveals something well into the sphere of the sinister in today’s culture.
Peter is a serial killer in nuce, revenge be damned. Next time he will do it to his lonely friend, the one who wants to be a professor. He is just another Dexter without the sense of humor. Why should we link this story to repressed or unrepressed homosexuality? It would seem to me that the notion of a causal link between repressed homosexuality and misogyny is itself homophobic. Peter is an avenger, but the film tends to present him as a liberal angel of life in the face of so much hatred inherited from history. That cannot be, can it?, what goes under progressivism.
We could say that the film in fact presents what I have just said, brings it into the open. I do not discount it. But in my reading the film overdetermines the novel in an ideological sense. Proulx claims that the story is indeed partially autobiographical, and that Phil occupies the position of Uncle Ed in Savage’s childhood ranch. What is contingent for Savage–more interested in the drama of his own life, or in life in the ranches of the West only two generations removed from pioneer generations–becomes fated in Campion’s film as a recipe and a lesson on how to deal with bullies and what justice is and ought to be coming to them.
I have no sympathy for bullies but then I have no sympathy for serial killers, even of the self-righteous, surgical, cancelling kind, symbolic or real. It is bad politics, not to mention un-smokable infrapolitics.