Jane Campion’s Power of the Dog is one of those films best not to think about too much. Instead, enjoy the craft, the photography and the performances. Middle class story telling is based on mystery and skeletons in the closet – and the skeletons can be, as Freud discovered, in the closet of the mind.
The genre for this strange revenge story is the cowboy film, that cultural fantasy of the American settler. In reality, cowboys were ranch hands who rode horses to round up the cattle wandering over vast areas without fences and then drive them to rail heads to be shipped to the burgeoning meat industry. Influenced by the Vaquero of Mexico, they assumed a work dress and the tools of the trade – chaps, boots, hats, lariats etc. plus a machismo. It was often lonely and underpaid work. Via Hollywood, this morphed into the romance of the warrior figure sorting out frontier towns lacking law and order, morphing further into imagined conflict with Native Americans, who, in reality, fought mainly with the army – as in most colonial ventures.
But here the genre is used to tell an Abel and Cain type story: a nasty brother out of love with life(for unknown reasons), a plump brother who is a bit of a sap (for unknown reasons), a widow with a gay, anorexic son, an abundance of ranch hands who form a sort of inarticulate but homophobic chorus, a hint of spirituality hence the old testament title, an unlikely looking mansion built in McKenzie country, some tanalised fence posts straight from Wright Stephenson, shots of Oamaru with digital enhancement, shots of lonely Model T Fords on country roads, a good deal of sexual tension, a feminist sympathy, a general weariness with life, an unlikely denouement and a wonder as to what this has been about other than the skilled creating of mystery, the mystery that Brecht insisted on abolishing. What are the economics? How’d this family get hold of the land? Do the ranch hands need a union? Where’ve they come from? Who’s making the dosh?
And of course the cowboy disappeared with the advent of the barbed wire fence. Nasty stuff, barbed wire, as bad as the entanglements of the bourgeoisie, as the working class had found fighting in the trenches of an absurd world war.
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