Monday, February 14, 2022

Oscar Film Journal: The Power of the Dog (2021)

Welcome back to the Oscar Film Journal, here at!  The 94th Awards are only six weeks away and I have some major catching up to do - to that end, let's look at another one of this year's nominees!

The frontrunner this year is Jane Campion's psychological drama/western The Power of the Dog, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee.  The film is set on a 1920s Montana cattle ranch, owned by Phil and George Burbank (Cumberbatch and Plemons).  The unkempt, dour Phil does most of the ranching work, along with a team of hired hands, while polite, good-natured George handles the business end of things.  While on a cattle drive the brothers stop over at an inn owned by Rose (Dunst), for whom George immediately develops romantic feelings, consoling her after Phil cruelly mocks her awkward, effeminate son Peter (Smit-McPhee).  When George and Rose marry and she moves to the Burbank ranch, it sets off a contentious battle of wills between Phil and his new in-laws.  

And that's about all I'll say regarding the plot; The Power of the Dog is one of those films where you don't fully know what you're seeing until it's all over and you've had time to piece it together.  Campion's writing and direction are so subtle in fact, it's almost a little frustrating trying to figure out what's happening between the characters and why.  And yet, once you've completed the film and reflected a bit, you begin to marvel at what she's done and how skillfully she's toyed with your expectations.  One's sympathies shift from character to character throughout the story, no small feat considering what a loathsome cur Phil seems at the outset.
Visually the film is pretty breathtaking, making extensive use of what look to be drone shots sweeping over majestic New Zealand landscapes and capturing the bare austerity of ranching life.  I was reminded more than a few times of the earthy realism of There Will Be Blood (coincidentally Johnny Greenwood scored both films), both in terms of the visuals and the pacing, not to mention both films include a fascinating study of a central antagonist.  

All four main performances received Oscar nods, and in each case the acting is understated and as driven by facial expression as anything else.  Cumberbatch's fierce blue eyes mask deep, far-reaching pain, longing, and maybe a little self-hatred.  Plemons as George approaches every situation as a man struggling to maintain dignity and decorum, even as his brother seems determined to drive away his new wife.  Dunst is mousy and long-suffering as Rose, still mourning the suicide of her first husband and ill-equipped to push back against Phil's overbearing nature.  Smit-McPhee gives the performance of his still-young career, easily bullied and quietly resentful through his cold med-student gaze, the wheels turning with each new piece of information.  

I was at first prepared to give this film a slightly above-average review at the moment it was over, my immediate reaction being that it was so sparse and distant I couldn't sink my teeth into it.  But once I'd had time to process it all, my opinion improved pretty drastically.  This is a movie that makes you work a fair amount to fully enjoy it, contemplative in its pacing but much richer than it seems at first, indeed even genre-defying.  My advice to anyone going in cold: Stay with it, the destination makes the journey satisfying.  I'll be interested in rewatching this to try and pick up what I missed the first time.  

I give The Power of the Dog ***1/2 out of ****.

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