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THE POWER OF THE DOG – Jonny Greenwood

December 3, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

The Power of the Dog is the latest film by acclaimed director Jane Campion. It’s adapted from the 1967 novel of the same name by Thomas Savage, and is ostensibly a western – it’s set on a remote cattle ranch in Montana in 1925 – but that’s not really what the film is about. It’s a film about relationships; between brothers, between lovers, between mothers and sons. It’s also a film about toxic masculinity – what it means to be a man in those times, and the lengths to which one will go to prove your masculinity to others. It’s a film about loneliness and isolation – both physically in terms of geography, but also emotionally, and what that does to a person. And, ultimately, it’s an exploration of gender and sexuality in that harsh, bleak setting, and how all those things manifest in the inter-personal dynamics of the people experiencing them.

The film stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemmons as the two brothers, Phil and George Burbank. George is simple, honest, and a little bit naïve, whereas Phil is a bully, malicious, homophobic, and abusive. Their relationship changes when George meets and then marries Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), a widow with a teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee); Peter is effeminate and nervous, where everyone around him is absolutely not, and he is clearly in the closet – where virtually all gay men were in the 1920s. Consumed with jealousy and spite, Phil intentionally makes life extremely difficult for the newlyweds, resulting in a spiral of depression and alcoholism, and at first he also mocks Peter relentlessly. However, there is a hidden side to Phil – a side which only manifests when he recalls his relationship with his now-dead mentor ‘Bronco Henry’ – and it is in those moments that Phil and Peter begin to form an uneasy connection.

The Power of the Dog is a tremendously beautiful film, visually. Campion juxtaposes the imposing harshness and isolation of the Montana landscape with an almost comical elegance as George tries to make the brutally out-of-place ranch house a little more welcoming and modern – the scene of a gang of rowdy ranch hands carrying a baby grand piano through the mud is deliciously ironic. Campion and her cinematographer Ari Wegner linger over details – a paper flower, a fly darting across the back of a stallion, a braided rope, the way the shadows of clouds play on a mountainside – and allow the story to unfold at a glacial pace, but it is this latter aspect that may prove to be the film’s downfall with mainstream audiences. As good as the film is, and as beautiful as it is, it is actually a little boring in the moment – all the story’s revelations are underplayed to the point where they actually don’t seem very important at all, leaving you feeling that there is nothing very interesting happening. I actually thought it was a rather dull film as I was watching it, and it was only afterwards, when I sat down and thought about all its quiet nuance, that the meat of the story became more clear.

Whatever else she does, Jane Campion’s movies have (usually) always been accompanied by great scores. Michael Nyman wrote one of his career best works for The Piano in 1993, as did Wojciech Kilar for The Portrait of a Lady in 1996, and she has also worked with composers as diverse as Angelo Badalamenti, Mark Bradshaw, and Icelandic artist Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson. For The Power of the Dog she has turned to the British composer and rock musician Jonny Greenwood of the band Radiohead, whose acclaimed work in film has included scores for titles such as There Will Be Blood, The Master, Inherent Vice, and Phantom Thread, the latter of which earned him his first Oscar nomination and the IFMCA Score of the Year Award in 2017. Greenwood tends to score films cerebrally rather than emotionally; he is prone to writing jagged string figures, harsh and dense orchestral passages, and sequences of quite intense dissonance. The Power of the Dog contains a great deal of that too, but it’s what Greenwood appears to be doing with it that makes it such a fascinating, difficult score.

In many ways, Greenwood’s score is the personification of who Phil Burbank is. It’s aggressive and domineering and at times quite unpleasant, but there is an intellectual quality to it that is basically hidden by all the dissonance, but is still detectable nonetheless. Greenwood takes the many familiar conventions of western film scores – string sections, honkytonk pianos, cellos played like banjos, allusions to classic Americana folk music – but somehow plays them in combinations and keys and with chord progressions that make them feel wrong. This is music that is almost trying too hard to fit the expectations of the setting and the time period, so much so that the overcompensations make it feel unnatural. It’s easy to read this as a musical reflection of Phil – a man of genuine intelligence, and with dangerous hidden secrets, but who intentionally presents a hyper-masculine front of sweat and muck and belligerent bad manners to the world, so that those parts of his personality are never revealed. But the same can also be said of Peter, who never tries to hide his lisp and his walk and his “effeminate” interests from a world which absolutely does not understand them or him – so much so that he, and the music Greenwood gives to him, again feels wrong when it is juxtaposed against the rugged masculinity of his stepfather’s hired hands, and the traditional activities they pursue.

In an interview with Jon Burlingame for Variety, Greenwood reveals some details – how Strauss’s Radetzky March performed on a player piano eventually morphed into a sort-of theme for Rose, how the mountains and deserts of Montana felt like an alien landscape and inspired him to write music for atonal brasses inspired by 1960s Star Trek music; how Greenwood learned to play his cello like a banjo with the same sort of fingerpicking technique, and how French horns represented to him the sound of pent-up toxic masculinity (“they sound repressed, but the louder they play, the more open and angry they get”). It’s fascinating to explore all these ideas, and think about how they play in context. In Greenwood’s hands, the music makes the film come at you from unexpected emotional places. None of the emotions displayed by the actors are mirrored by the music in the scenes in question; everything is in conflict, everything feels raw and at odds with itself. This is clearly intentional, as it holds up a mirror to the conflict within Phil and shows that Phil is a man just as much at odds with himself too.

The soundtrack album runs for a scant 35 minutes, and for many it will be an unpleasant, difficult listen. There is very little recurring thematic content in the score – there is very little thematic content, period – so instead Greenwood concentrates on four or five recurring instrumental textures that give the score the depth it needs. Emotionally and tonally the score is one of almost constant foreboding, there is a haunted, anguished feel to so much of the music, like the weight of the geography and the sense of expectation placed on the characters is crushing them under years of pent-up pressure. The opening cue, “25 Years,” is full of minimalist plucked guitar textures and slow, churning figures from a string quartet, which are infused with a hint of warmth but also have just as much in the way of discord. The guitars return later in “Figured It Out,” an intense collision between them and a bank of plucked pizzicato strings.

The string textures that underpin the opening cue become more prominent in “Prelude,” which is actually the first cue heard in the film, and which is awash in classically rich churning cello textures. These sounds all tend to relate to Phil, his antagonism, and the way he casually belittles everyone around him. There is a sharp, abrasive sound to the strings in cues like “Mimicry,” the “Viola Quartet,” and the occasionally quite thrilling “They Were Mine,” while in “Miss Nancy Arrives” the cello is plucked like a banjo, and is aggressive and urgent, with an unsettling sense of motion. This is the type of music that underscores many of the scenes involving Peter and his initial interactions with Phil – ‘Miss Nancy’ is Phil’s mocking homophobic nickname for Peter – and the whole thing feels like the musical embodiment of the stress he feels, and the alienation he suffers.

In contrast, the gentler strings heard in cues like “So Soft” and “A Lovely Evening” tend to relate to Phil’s ‘fatso’ brother George, and the quiet, pleasant relationship he develops with the mousy widow Rose. “So Soft” features a generally warmer sound, but still maintains the slightly tortured, insistently ominous edge that runs through the entire score, while “A Lovely Evening” is a musical depiction of George’s pretentions of sophistication in the Montana plains – dream like textures which collide and overlap and echo, and eventually collapse in on themselves, tumbling and cascading like a waterfall. The two piano led cues are related to Rose, who tries to play the piano for George at his request, but whose performance technique dries up in the face of Phil’s relentless psychological torment. “Detuned Mechanical Piano” sounds exactly how you would expect, a robotic, hectic, scattershot, frantic 90 seconds of piano-based chaos. The subsequent “Paper Flowers” is strange, with no apparent sense of rhythm, and is performed on a piano which sounds like it is broken – much like Rose’s fragile psyche is gradually broken by Phil, piece by excruciating piece.

The cues which prominently feature horns are “The Ravine,” “Best Friends,” and the “Requiem for Phil,” which is the second cue on the album but actually plays during the film’s finale. Greenwood contrasts broad, open brass whole notes with strange buzzing string textures, until the finale where the strings become elegiac and Greenwood allows an occasional moment of melancholy tonality to peek through the gloom. One amusing thing I noticed – and this will only really be of interest to UK readers – is that the 2-note horn motif that Greenwood frequently uses is startlingly similar to the opening notes of ‘The Night Rider,’ a piece of library music that English composer Cliff Adams wrote in 1969, and which was subsequently used in a very famous series of commercials for Cadbury’s Milk Tray chocolates. The Milk Tray Man was certainly a symbol of virile masculinity to a certain segment of the British public, but I’m not sure that those are the connotations Greenwood was going for! And all because the lady loves…

The final element to the score is what is, essentially, the main theme, which is introduced in “West Alone” and concludes the album in “West”. This piece is Greenwood’s only real acquiescence to ‘traditional Western movie music,’ and features a wholesome melody that opens on a solo piano, and gradually builds until it sounds warmly inviting, and picks up a more lyrical cello accompaniment. In the conclusion the wholesome melody is transposed to the string quartet, and in context it acts as a subtle acknowledgement of how Peter and Phil’s relationship was ultimately resolved.

Considering the positive reception the film itself has received, it’s almost guaranteed at this point that Jonny Greenwood will pick up his second Oscar nomination for The Power of the Dog. Whether or not he deserves it – I’m still weighing that up. As an exercise in intellect, in subverting the conventions of the genre, and in conveying through music the subtle nuances in the characters and the shifts in their relationships, I have to admit there is a lot to admire – and maybe that’s all that is needed. Greenwood gave the film a fascinating, defiantly different soundscape which made me think about how the music is actually used in film context. As actual music, though, it’s a tougher sell. Some of it is very discordant and challenging, there is almost no conventional emotional content to latch onto, and anyone who needs identifiable thematic content in order to truly connect with a score will find it lacking. As I said; I’m still on the fence. There are times where I’m truly enthralled and fascinated by the dramatic narrative musical decisions that Greenwood and Campion made, but then at other times I find myself wishing it wasn’t as odd as it is.

Buy the Power of the Dog soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • 25 Years (2:18)
  • Requiem For Phil (2:26)
  • So Soft (3:04)
  • Detuned Mechanical Piano (1:34)
  • Prelude (1:43)
  • The Ravine (1:35)
  • Mimicry (1:50)
  • West Alone (1:38)
  • Miss Nancy Arrives (1:41)
  • Figured It Out (1:55)
  • Viola Quartet (2:51)
  • Best Friends (1:49)
  • Paper Flowers (2:00)
  • A Lovely Evening (2:44)
  • They Were Mine (3:20)
  • West (2:33)

Running Time: 34 minutes 53 seconds

Lakeshore Records/Invada (2021)

Music composed and conducted by Jonny Greenwood. Orchestrations by Jonny Greenwood. Featured musical soloists Oliver Coates, Colin Alexander, Reinoud Ford, Clare O’Connell, Max Ruisi, Sergio Serra, Luba Tunnicliffe, Charlotte Bonneton, Nick Bootiman, Matthew Kettle, Eloisa Fleur-Thom, Oliver Cave, Alessandro Ruisi, Roberto Ruisi, Richard Bayliss and Carys Evans. Recorded and mixed by Graeme Stewart. Edited by Graeme Stewart. Album produced by Jonny Greenwood.

  1. December 3, 2021 at 11:35 am

    Dang, not happy to hear this, I was really looking forward to what Greenwood can do for a western movie. Sounds like the kind of score that’s not really meant to be listeneed to outside the movie. I have yet to watch the movie or listen to this score (I’m surprised to find out it’s been out for some time already).

    On another note, are you planning to review Pemberton’s score for Being the Ricardos? It’s out today. I gave it a brief listen and thought it was magnificent.

    • December 3, 2021 at 12:35 pm

      I might review Being the Ricardos. I heard the Oscar promo some time ago, and wasn’t super impressed – maybe it needs film context too.

  2. Hal Gregg
    December 3, 2021 at 12:57 pm

    Are we going to get a Spencer review

  3. jake3298
    December 4, 2021 at 5:57 am

    Just thought I’d mention that the horn motif in “Requiem for Phil” is VERY close (too close?) to Bernstein’s horn motif composed for ‘On the Waterfront’. It occurs at beginning of the symphonic suite of the score if you want to check it out.

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