Monday Motivation: The power of The Power of the Dog
The usual suspects are talking up The Power of the Dog as a likely Oscar winner, and Benedict Cumberbatch an Oscar favourite for his role as the cowboy Phil Burbank. For Jane Campion, whose The Piano has been hailed as a masterpiece of cinema, this latest film marks the end of a ten-year drought.
No spoilers here. I’m not going to give the game away, but I am going to talk in rather abstract terms about the technique that Campion uses to sustain interest in her story over its 126 minutes of running time.
The film is divided into a series of parts labelled I, II, III and so on. Each “chapter” focuses on an episode in the lives of four characters, dipping deeper into them on each occasion. The story advances in a series of elliptical loops. Campion offers no explanations. Tiny clues are dropped naturally into the dialogue, or onto the screen, that tell us more about the characters, their strengths, their vulnerabilities and their secrets. But the story only unfolds with the urgency of lava oozing from a volcanic vent: it’s inexorable, but very, very slow.
The extraordinary score by Jonny Greenwood is as dark and ambiguous as the characters – and he deliberately sets out to make the familiar unfamiliar by using instruments in unusual ways. For instance, he uses a cello – but plays it as a banjo. In conversation with Campion, Greenwood said, “You get that nice confusion of its being a sound you recognise – but it’s unfamiliar.”*
And so the tension ratchets up, and Campion, who adapted the novel by Thomas Savage for her screenplay, strews hints and clues about aspects of the characters throughout – and foreshadows the climax to come – but she takes great pains to give nothing away until very late in the story.
She deliberately delays unveiling the secret at the heart of the film until, with a kind of awful horror, it dawns on us what’s happened – and what has been foreordained by character and by fate almost from the start.
Two hugely important lessons for us all: one, it’s impossible to hint too obliquely. Your readers (or your viewers) are much more discerning than you think. They’ll sense the direction in which the story’s tending, they’ll be aware of impending danger, they’ll realise something’s up – without being able to say precisely what it is that threatens. And that’s enough. Too much information, in other words, kills tension and undermines story.
And secondly, don’t hurry. Delay. If your hero’s on the verge of puzzling out the key to the mystery, distract him, confuse him, delay him. And do it again. And again. And again. Until you’ve drawn the tension out to an unbearable point.
So then, when you eventually do expose the truth, it’ll come as an overwhelming release of tension.
* Of course, this is one of the unspoken goals of all writing: to make the familiar unfamiliar, and, perhaps, to make the unfamiliar, familiar – crossing and recrossing the boundary between what’s comforting and what’s challenging
What a powerful film, so glad you wrote about it, Richard. Thanks. I’ve watched it twice now, and am recommending it to everyone I know. Well, almost everyone. Two of my close friends, ‘arty’ types who loved ‘The Piano’ and generally love art house films, say they fell asleep midway through ‘The Power of the Dog’. It IS a slow burn. One of the reasons I watched it twice was because I was vague about some of the ‘reveals’, the essential clues along the way ultimately explaining the ending. Second time around it all made perfect sense, the subtle hints (maybe some not so subtle), where they were dropped. But I wonder – can a film be TOO subtle? At any rate, my favourite film in a long time and I hope it sweeps the awards, for what they are worth.