Enough Rope

Um. This is the first time I can remember feeling the pressure that I suspect broadsheet reviewers suffer from. The way they seem to go in lock-step so much of the time, even remarking on the same points in the films under discussion. Occasionally you’ll get a “look at me” review where someone will defend a movie that’s been trashed by everyone else. Rarer to get a lone negative review. One feels like one is missing out on something perceived readily by others.

So it feels vaguely sacrilegious of me to be writing that I found Jane Campion’s film THE POWER OF THE DOG a little… dull. Incredibly lovely-looking. Good performances. But neither Fiona or I felt the dread that others have talked about. We felt a notable lack of tension, actually. It may be because Benedict Cumberbatch isn’t a natural tough guy. I’m not sure tough is something you can act. Though certainly a lot of movie tough guys were probably not so tough in reality, they looked it on the screen, and Benedict doesn’t. There’s nothing wrong with his acting. He’s clearly committed to the physicality. His character is nasty — Fiona wanted someone to hit him, immediately. It wasn’t clear why nobody did, because he didn’t seem like the kind of fellow they’d be scared of.

Kubrick reckoned that intelligence was the only quality that couldn’t be acted, which sounds good, but doesn’t seem true to me. If the actors learn the lines and how to pronounce the big words, they can make it seem like they’re thinking them up — that’s what actors do. OK, maybe Denise Richards playing a nuclear physicist is pushing it, but usually the illusion is achievable. As John Huston cruelly observed, in FREUD, Montgomery Clift makes us believe he’s thinking.

So I think a certain kind of danger, toughness, hardness, is the unactable quality, it’s a matter of physiognomy and essence. If R. Lee Ermey can’t make Matthew Modine look like a killer, what chance does Jane Campion have with the lovely Mr. Cumberbatch? In fact, BC may have the opposite problem: he can’t hide his intelligence. So he can’t say “It’s time she faces up to a few — whatchacallum? — facts!” and make us believe he’s that inarticulate. The solution would be for him to get so furious he starts to lose his language, but does he have that kind of anger in him?

Without the fear seeming real, the movie becomes a succession of attractive scenes of people who don’t communicate. Which is of only mild interest, until things get strange with Kodi-Smit McPhee.

THE POWER OF THE DOG: KODI SMIT-McPHEE as PETER in THE POWER OF THE DOG. Cr. KIRSTY GRIFFIN/NETFLIX © 2021

We did get really excited about the bit with the dog though. There’s a shape in the hills — a barking dog — and only two of the characters can see it. It’s a shadow. The hills themselves vaguely resemble crouching animals, but when they talk about the dog, it took me ages to see it. And then I helped Fiona see it. It’s good and subtle. Imagine what a scene we’d have made in a cinema. (We watched on Netflix.)

Can you see the dog?

I guess I’m doing something human and stupid — assuming that because I wasn’t bowled over by the film, others who say they were are being insincere. I guess also if I felt my opinion had any chance of affecting Campion’s employment prospects — it’s been too long since her last film, and the climate is not favourable to anyone making dramas without people getting punched through buildings — I would bite my tongue. And if I were interviewing Campion and she started talking about getting Benedict Cumberbatch and Jessie Plemons to waltz together so they would learn each others smell and feel like brothers, I might not suggest getting them to wrestle instead. But I would think it.

14 Responses to “Enough Rope”

  1. Mark Fuller Says:

    Who would have hit him, apart from meek brother George ?? He was everyone else’s employer and it seems like hundreds of miles to the next potential employer if you decked the boss…….of course it is eventually revealed SPOILERS that BC’s character wasn’t a born-in-the saddle tough guy either but had been a Peter 20-something years earlier, a University Greek (or was it Philosophy??) scholar who hadn’t ridden a horse. The line you mention, ” I dunno, FACTS” I read as a rhetorical flourish.
    Definitely one to see in a big screen environment. Not just for the excellent cinematography, and the wide vistas; The tension was palpable when I saw it with an audience; of course it doesn’t go where one expects although the foreshadowing was there in retrospect, as it were.

  2. I can see all that. I felt the twists were mostly telegraphed well in advance, though. The gay themes would have seemed surprising, maybe, in the nineties.

  3. Fiona Watson Says:

    Hi Mark! I wanted to punch him, but because I’m not in the film, a character in the film’s world would have to do it for me. Problem is, as you pointed out, there’s no-one around to fill the job vacancy of Cumberpuncher. I enjoyed the film more than David while still being frustrated by its slowness. I even found myself getting very caught up with Kirsten Dunst/Rose’s emotional reaction to P Burbank. I was offering up suggestions about how she could open up a dialogue with him when he was teasing her about her piano playing. I went, “If I was you, I’d march up those stairs and say to him, ‘I know you play your banjo better than I can play the piano. Why don’t we help each other out and BOTH play for the Governor.'” But she wouldn’t listen to me because she was a fictitious, flat person on a screen.

  4. Fiona Watson Says:

    I also had some words for Jane Campion. Every time yet another richly saturated with colour and gorgeously composed shot appeared on the screen I’d exclaim, “Oh stop it woman!”

  5. Mark Fuller Says:

    Oh the gay theme was telegraphed, so much so that in thriller plot terms, it’s kind of a red herring. it was the true character of Peter I was referring to.

  6. “We watched on Netflix.”

    Was that why it didn’t work, perhaps? Does it need a bigger screen and darkness around?

    I must say, I knew what one twist must be almost from the start – no natural tough guy would be so obsessed with being a tough guy – but I thought Cumberbatch did astonishingly well in an impossible role, even if he was wearing a chest wig.

  7. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “a little dull” ? I bailed after ten stultifying minutes. Jane Campion has always been wildly overrated. But this thing has less to do with her than the powers behind it — pushing t for Oscars like there’s no tomorrow. I was sent several packages. First the novel in paperback, then the DVD screener, then a giant art book of stills and text, and then a tiny package containing the artificial flower. It’s like a political campaign — not a movie.

  8. David Ehrenstein Says:

    ” I dunno, FACTS” ever so remindful of Ronald Regan’s immortal “Facts are stupid things.”

  9. David Ehrenstein Says:

    “If R. Lee Ermey can’t make Matthew Modine look like a killer,” But what does a killer look like. Across the course of Kubrick’s career there are all sorts of killers: Timothy Carey in “The Killing,” George Macready and Adolph Menjou I “Paths of Glory,” Woody Strode in “Spartacus,” James Mason in “Lolita,” Sterling Hayden in “Dr. Strangelove,” the voice of Douglas Rain as HAL in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” Malcolm McDowell in “A Clockwork Orange,” Vincent D’Onofrio in “Full Metal Jacket,” plus Matthew Modine and Debra Winger’s husband in the same film. All different. As for “acting intelligence” Kubrick is wrong. Witness the entire career of Jean-Louis Trintignant (my candidate for the cinema’s greatest actor.)

  10. David Ehrenstein Says:

  11. Is Trintignant a dope in real life? He’s made some smart career choices. But, yes, fantastic onscreen.

    Renoir got it right when he said, “There are undoubtedly some very intelligent actors, but it is uncertain whether they act with their intelligence.”

    All Kubrick’s killers convince, even Modine when he finally does it — as a mercy. I’ve seen him play a bad guy more recently and I don’t think it suited him. He very interestingly once said that all the big stars broke into the big time when they did roles that required them to kill somebody. It seems to be required of our leading men, which is disturbing.

    Having enjoyed The Red Desert on my TV, I’m no longer certain there are films so slow and demanding they require the cinema experience — which isn’t always what it was, thanks to the cell phone. But it’s possible. I suspect heightened concentration might give me more time to predict where this one was, slowly, going.

  12. David Ehrenstein Says:

    I can’t imagine Trintignant being anything but phenomenally compelling in real life. Just look at his climactic speech in “Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train” — a burst of righteous paternal anger that cuts incredibly deep.

  13. I always think of the way he rapidly drops his smile in The Conformist when no one’s looking, a beautiful manifestation of insincerity.

  14. David Ehrenstein Says:

    Such manifestations also figure in the many films he made for Alain Robbe-Grillet (a great and greatly neglected filmmaker)

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