Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Kodi Smit-McPhee.
Directed By Jane Campion.
The Plot: Two brothers (Cumberbatch and Plemons) run a ranch, and their lives are forever changed when one marries a widow (Dunst), who has a rather interesting son (Smit-McPhee) that seems very at odds with the environment around him. Lots of long staring and heavy thinking ensue.
What Works and What Doesn’t: Usually, I break these into two fairly divided sections, but The Power Of The Dog is not a typical film, so it gets atypical treatment. This is not my first rodeo with Jane Campion’s anti-western, but rather I had to circle back around to the same film. I suppose I didn’t have to, but after the first viewing, I profoundly disliked one of the biggest Oscar contenders this year, and I heard many others talk about various elements since it dropped on Netflix, so i figured, maybe I was wrong. Maybe there is some masterpiece here and I just missed it.
Yes and no. I will fully admit that coming in a second time, having some idea of what this movie was, I could really just focus on it and look at the craft, instead of passively just sitting and letting the film attempt to entertain me, like I stupidly thought it might the first time.
And I think that’s where this movie really shifted was if you know the film is not entertaining, and that is not the purpose of the film, and you’re watching an artsy Oscar bait film, then you can appreciate elements of it appropriately. There definitely is something really interesting that Jane Campion is doing here, stylistically, that keeps you somehow engaged in a rather disengaged film.
For most of the film, you are watching something. You’re not sure what, but you’re pretty sure it’s not going to end well. Campion, and really through a terrific performance from Benedict Cumberbatch, create this deeply flawed individual who seems like he might mass murder at the drop of a hat, but just as quickly as those tendencies seem to take hold of the film, suddenly she shifts his character in a completely different direction. The really intricate character development around this one character is actually so good it makes you forget that this movie really isn’t going anywhere or doing anything, and rarely makes sense.
At times, The Power Of The Dog feels like it’s on the cusp of greatness. Campion has some really amazing scenes here, and the few times she allows the score to stand out, you realize that someone even wrote a score for this film that seems to fully understand how incredibly off kilter this movie is.
And then, on the other hand, this film seems at other times to be so pretentious that it might be a Saturday night Live sketch. Sometimes, characters are so unnecessarily meditative, or stare off at something (usually with tears glistening), or doing something just so damn menial that when you sit in those moments you actually start to ask yourself the hard questions.
What is this film actually about?
What is actually going on here between these characters, and why do their dynamics seem to change at the drop of a hat?
Why do characters and their motivations seem to be as quickly changing as the wind blowing through these scenes?
Take for example, how little we really ever need established about the brothers. There’s almost no backstory given, except for a few important tidbits, and then suddenly they are being served a meal, and then one is married to Kirsten Dunst, and kodi Smit-McPhee goes away for a while. Then he comes back, and his character is so poorly written, I can’t tell if he doesn’t know how to act, or if he’s just really confused on his line delivery. I like Kodi Smit-McPhee, but he’s by far the worst actor in this movie, and I’m not even sure its his fault. This film is trying to be so fucking artistic, it forgets to actually be a film. It feels like just some scenes strung together that happen to be somewhat coherent, so Netflix just launched an Oscar campaign and hoped for the best.
There’s sometimes an effect here where a film is so highly praised that it’s like other critics feel like they have to praise the same film, and we end up with films being Oscar nominated that we will never watch again, or likely remember 10 or 20 years later. Jane Campion, for what its worth, does have The Piano under her belt, which has somewhat stood the test of time. And it’s possible that her greatest trick, making people believe they just watched the most powerful and artistic mindfuck of a lifetime, will actually land her and Netflix some Oscars.
But after seeing this film now twice, I can say with absolute confidence, the only thing I’d strongly urge the Academy to consider is Benedict Cumberbatch. Aside from that, I’m sure there are some down the line categories, perhaps cinematography for example, and even perhaps Jane Campion just because she managed to turn pyrite into gold.
But if we’re being honest, this film is rarely coherent. It allows one actor an incredible performance, while languishing the rest in shitty character development and asking them to do the best with it. Quite frankly, I think Jane Campion knows she directed something that critics would get their juices flowing over, while relishing the praise. Personally, I never care what other critics are saying. I did give this film a rewatch, and after being bored to death the first time, the second time I analyzed the shit out of this. I’m still convinced this movie isn’t good, and if this wins Best Picture, it is an affront to all the great films that just are lacking the financial strength of a marketing campaign. I wonder if Netflix had bought Mass, would it be the presumptive front runner?
The Blind Perspective: This actually has really great and really specific audio description that even at times really goes into descriptive detail. Of course, there are long moments of silence in this film, so there’s a lot of time that can be filled here.
Final Thoughts: Anyone who has this as their top film of 2021 is either lying, trying to be cool, or didn’t see enough films last year. No one will remember this film 10 years from now. It is an Oscar-only film. A film that is so artistic it alienates a wide audience, and goes only for the glory. But there’s nothing strong enough to make anyone want to come back again and again to revisit. I applaud Campion for what she’s done, and especially Cumberbatch, but y’all are being tricked. This is the film equivalent of being Punk’d. I mean, they found a way right at the end of the film for a character to mutter the words “The Power Of The Dog’ even though that entire scene makes no sense. And when you’re sitting alone, randomly reading a book, how many times do you come to a phrase in the book where you just suddenly decide to read that one line out loud? Never. No. Jane Campion, Netflix, and a marketing blitz have convinced everyone that this is the film of the year. If that’s true, 2021 was an awful year for film.
Final Grade (after two viewings): C-