Campion, Kadal and Power of the Darling

An exploration of how the films Power of the Dog and Kadal collide
Campion, Kadal and Power of the Darling

The final moments of Jane Campion's Power of the Dog show a key character, a late adolescent boy, Peter Gordon played by Kodi McPhee, looking at a Biblical verse that gives the movie its title: Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.

There's the allusion that Peter sees himself as having done God's work, of having saved the Darling from the Dog. And the sheer serendipity that allowed Peter to do that might even suggest that his act was preordained. But when you look back at the rest of the movie, God, the Bible or religion are all conspicuously absent. You see people who are tormented but nobody's clutching a cross or praying at the church. There's no mention of God's name, even in vain. And if there is a spirit that hovers over the movie, it's not that of the Holy Ghost but of a dead cowboy named Bronco Henry.

It's Bronco Henry who is treated with such a mythical reverence by the gang of cowboys, that you would think there's something beyond human, almost divine (or demonic) about this man. Phil Burbank, played by Benedict Cumberbatch is the leader of the gang, and he has a deeply spiritual, almost manic, devotion to Bronco Henry. "Let's go camping in the mountain, and cook ourselves some elk liver, just like Bronco Henry," he says to his brother as if he were following Moses to Mt. Sinai. If the cult of Bronco Henry were a religion, Phil would be the First Apostle.

But rather than a "religion", the cult of Bronco Henry is really just a masquerade, of hyper-masculinity, where the appearance of looking and talking like a rugged barbarian is Gospel. And any sign, any outward sign of femininity is treated with the harshness of yanking the testicles off a bull barehanded. A telling scene is when Peter crawls into Phil's dugout and finds the images of perfect male bodies. It's all about the image. As Phil says to his gang, "If you can't see it, it ain't there." (which also sounds like what an atheist might say about God).

Like Power of the Dog, Mani Ratnam's Kadal also ends with a Biblical moment. It's a visual, an overt visual in fact, that of Christ the Redeemer surrounded by giant Crucifixes. Superimposed on this visual, is the image of Thomas Barnabas, a young man referred to throughout the film as God's son. Unlike Power of the Dog, Kadal is rooted in actual religion. The film opens at a seminary and closes at a church. A key character is a preacher, Father Sam, played by Arvind Swamy. The hero Thomas, played by Gautam Karthik, with his frail frame and long lightly-bearded face, even looks like Christ. And in place of Phil and the cult of Bronco Henry, Kadal has Satan-worshipping Bergmans, played by Arjun Sarja.

Cinematically Power of the Dog and Kadal are quite different. Power of the Dog is set in the Montana desert, which looks as barren as the soul of its protagonist, Phil, appears to be. I would like to stress on the words "appears to be" because to me, the film's greatest strength is how it manages to extract an iota of compassion for this deeply disturbing man. Campion shapes the film as a psychological drama, a sharp character study, where nothing much happens by way of plot. She often shoots her subjects in shadows or as silhouettes, hinting at the inherent darkness in them. This is a dark film, filled with pensive and at times chilling silences. And music, when used, is wielded as a weapon of torment, both by Campion and her characters.

Kadal, on the other hand, is set at a coastal village, where the many moods of the sea, from tranquil to turbulent, mirror the travails of the protagonist Thomas's soul. According to Jeyamohan, whose novel the film is based on, Kadal is a deeply spiritual story about the transformation of s wounded boy into an elevated, enlightened soul. Mani Ratnam shapes Kadal as a commercial film, weaving together action, drama, and romance, all replete with song and dance sequences. Music is used to celebrate, seduce, show sentiment and romanticize. There's so much happening in the film, that despite the 2-hour 45-minute runtime, only a handful of moments are allowed to breathe.

Despite the differences, what really brings Power of the Dog and Kadal close is that at the heart of both these movies is a battle for a boy's soul, and on the surface, it plays out as one between Good and Evil. In Kadal, this battle is an overtly Biblical one, which takes off when Father Sam enters the seminary and upends Bergmans's way of life, a life of breaching the boundaries of the seminary, and preaching the path of Satan. In Power of the Dog, the battle takes off when a woman, Rose played by Kirsten Dunst, enters Phil's home, which threatens his way of life. He favours filth over her facade of civility, and her marriage to his brother demeans his masculinity, his devotion to the cult of Bronco Henry.

In both movies, the boys caught in this battle, Thomas and Peter, have three father figures. In both movies, they lose their biological fathers, and not by natural causes. And in both movies, its the boy who ultimately brings an end to the battle.

Power of the Dog has won numerous plaudits, many major awards, won an Oscar and rightfully so. Personally, its one of the best movies I've watched in recent times. Kadal garnered neither significant critical acclaim nor was it a commercial success. The visual flair of the film was applauded but the thematic dissonance was criticized. There were scenes that sparkled but songs that stymied the storytelling. In the end, the main topic of discussion turned out to be the right of distributors to demand their investment back. But I've gone back to the film more than a few times, and beyond the cinematic flourishes, one reason for that is that Kadal is a hopeful film.

Power of the Dog, too, has a note of hope and it comes towards the end, once the film peels off the layers of toxicity and exposes the vulnerability in Phil, uncovering his compassion. But the movie ends with a chilling revelation that makes us question if everything we've seen is just a facade and if the characters are simply empty inside.

But in Kadal, faith is not just a facade; it's shaped into a flesh-and-blood character, the angelic Beatrice, played by Thulasi Nair. The character has a childlike innocence, which lets her see people for who they are and not what they appear to be. What takes the surgically precise filmmaking of Power of the Dog to uncover, is a given in Kadal. But the way Beatrice's arc played out, by the director's own admission, may not have meshed well with the rest of the movie. And yet it is Beatrice that really brings the story together. It's her gift for healing that breathes life and humanity into the men tormented by their own sins. It's her acts of compassion that eventually put the men on a path to forgiveness and redemption. In a pre-release interview, Jeyamohan had stated how the central theme of his story was inspired by Dante's The Divine Comedy, where a single act of kindness can turn the devil into an angel. It is that central theme that makes the movie hopeful, even if getting to it requires looking past the shiny exterior, seeing through the busy plot treatment and ignoring moments of uneven acting. In some way, it is the opposite of the Biblical verse that closes Power of the Dog.

In Kadal, it's the Darling that saves the Dog.

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