Both "Big Tuna Vito's" and "Good Old JR's" Reviews in one spot!

Two Thumbs Up for One Bad Cowboy

Campion's Tale of Toxic Masculinity is Best in Show (****)
(121721) Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a mean son of a gun. He runs his 1925 Montana ranch with his brother George (Jesse Plemons) like a dictator. Where George is a kinder, gentler soul, Phil controls things with a cruel iron fist. With pursed lips adorning a scowling face, Phil exudes intimidation and awe amongst his acolytes. Anyone and everyone can be subject to his verbal abuse – he is even prone to calling George “Fatso.” He bullies and taunts others with the glee of a sadist, and on more than one occasion exhibits homophobic tendencies. Suffice to say: when you’re around Phil it’s best to tread carefully, and even then you may not be able to escape his wrath.

While watching The Power of the Dog (2021), I began to wonder why I should be interested in following such a nasty character. But as we move further into the narrative, Phil’s layers start to peel away, revealing a person suffering under pain, loss, and the inability to truly be himself. Writer/director Jane Campion adapts Thomas Savage’s novel with a keen focus on details. She crafts the central character not with broad strokes but with precision and finesse. We see it in the way he carries himself, how he smokes a cigarette, ties a rope, handles a saddle, etc. It’s these little moments that build up an entire history of Phil – digging beneath the gruff exterior to find the vulnerability he tries so desperately to conceal.

This revelation begins when George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst) a widow with an effeminate, college-age son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). In an early scene, we see the extent of Phil’s cruelty, teasing Peter for crafting paper into flowers. When George brings Rose to the ranch to live, Phil’s meanness intensifies. He calls Peter a “Nancy” for his thin frame and the unmasculine way he carries himself. Phil calls Rose a “schemer,” and harshly torments her when she is unable to play a tune on the piano. But the toxicity Phil spews only hides the insecurities he has for himself. He is a person in constant inner conflict, to the point that he rejects his ivy league education and privileged upbringing. He bathes in a nearby lake while simultaneously covering himself in mud. Metaphorically, Phil sees himself as dirty, wanting to wash himself of the past even though he knows he could never escape it.

The acting all around is excellent. Jesse Plemons inhabits George as a good natured but simple-minded brother. He loves Rose and Phil equally but is unable to mend the disconnect between them. Kirsten Dunst plays Rose as a person who wants to make a good impression, but whose apprehension and angst nearly drives her up the wall. As Phil’s harassment builds, so does her desperation for escape. It’s a showy performance, but Dunst doesn’t allow it to go over the top – every moment feels appropriate. And Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Peter is an intelligent and observant young man – not nearly as helpless or weak as Phil may have first surmised. In a way, Peter senses the secrets Phil bottles in, and his interactions with him doesn’t suggest fear so much as empathy.

Benedict Cumberbatch has never been better. He balances both the tough and soft side of Phil with equal effectiveness. The performance is moving in the way it is so understated. He tells us everything we need to know without having to explicitly say it. Notice the way he speaks highly of his long dead friend and mentor, Bronco Henry – even creating a small shrine in his memory. Or in the way he walks around the ranch, always with purpose, only stopping to admire the rolling hills that surround the property. There is specific focus put on Cumberbatch’s hands, in how he handles rope or skins game or plays his banjo. All these pieces come together to create a full view of who Phil is, and Cumberbatch presents them in a finely tuned delivery.

Just like she did in The Piano (1993) Campion utilizes the landscape to create a subtle dreamlike quality. Although the setting is in Montana, the film was shot in her native New Zealand, and that adds an air of otherworldliness. The art direction and set design surrounds the ranch with hills and mountains. When fall and winter comes, the entire area is covered in a light snow, amplifying the sense of isolation. Ari Wegner’s cinematography captures the dark rock formations scattering into the horizon. In doors, the camera creeps around corners and down hallways, creating a mild by resonating dread. Watch how the frame slowly zooms in on Rose playing the piano, with Phil taunting her from another room. The stop and go of the visuals create a suspenseful, eerie style. Jonny Greenwood continues his streak of excellent scores, this time going for moody, somber rhythms that complement the story instead of being a distraction. In tone and style, the film plays a lot like There Will Be Blood (2007) in how mood and atmosphere reflect the mindset of the characters.

The tragedy of The Power of the Dog lies in how characters must suppress their inner selves from the outside world. Just like the protagonist of Moonlight (2016), Phil has warped his view of what it means to be a man, what it means to open himself to others, and to embrace who he really is. He hides behind a façade of masculinity, and it eats away at his very soul. His cruel nature masks what he really desires, and the possibility that it may never come to be. It’s one thing to find companionship and lose it, it’s another thing to never have had it to begin with. We discover that Phil Burbank isn’t running from his past, but longs for the chance to go back to it. The Power of the Dog is cold, cruel, and impossible to ignore. It is also one of the best films of the year.

Brokeback Family Matters (***½)
(121721) You know the traditional Western must be dead or mortally wounded when the year’s two most notable examples or variations of the genre: The Power of the Dog and Cry Macho are attacks on what I call hyper masculinity (exaggerated machismo) and they also include no action or acts of heroism in them.

Of the two, The Power of the Dog is the more thoughtful and involving film (although Cry Macho contains many small pleasures and good performances.) The Power of the Dog also takes on the weighty theme of the cost of repressed sexuality and homosexuality in particular in the old west. In this way it is reminiscent of Brokeback Mountain. With all the new knowledge we have gained about the old west and how Native Americans were treated it may no longer possible to do a totally traditional western like John Wayne and Randolph Scott used to do.

The Power off the Dog which is currently playing at the Music Box and just started streaming on Netflix was directed by the skillful New Zealand film maker, Jane Campion. She was actually the first female to win an Oscar for her film, The Piano, and although it was a fine film, I think I liked her superlative biopic An Angle at My Table and her drama, Bright Star (2009) about the poet John Keats even more. Holy Smoke! the S & M psychological film with Harvey Keitel and Kate Winslet was also fascinating. Campion just won the New York Critic’s Circle Award for best director for The Power of the Dog, and some see another Oscar soon in her future.

Despite the untraditional subject matter, Campion shoots many scenes through windows and doorways which could be a homage to the old Western master, John Ford, who often did this in his films.

The film stars one of modern cinema’s most dynamic actors, Benedict Cumberbatch. Most people probably know him from Dr.Strange but many of his finest performances were for British TV like the Hidden Crown, and he was also arguably the best Sherlock Holmes. The one trait that he usually brings to many of his roles is overwhelming intelligence and arrogance, at least up until this film. There have been many stories in the media about how he used the method and was curt and cruel with other actors to get into character even before filming, and he “does a Brando” and completely immerses himself in the character. Of his performance in the film Campion has said, “There’s no Benedict there.” Cumberbatch is often impressive but his psychological transformation here playing a character far different from the type he usually plays is astonishingly convincing.

The film like the novel with the same name that inspired it takes place in Montana cattle ranch in 1925. Some people (not me) might be angered that this American set film was almost entirely shot in New Zealand (which is where the director hails from). But it can be argued that the old America this film depicts does not exist anywhere.

The Power of the Dog presents a complex four-sided toxic relationship between a sadistic cowboy, Phil, (Cumberbatch’s character), his more affluent and compassionate brother, George, ( Jesse Plemons), a broken widow, Rose (Kristen Dunst), and her oversensitive Peter, son (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The two brothers, Phil and George who act as opposites co-own a ranch. When Cumberbatch’s character, Phil Burbank, finds out that his brother is going to marry a local widow his face transforms to a mask of complete loathing. He torments her until she is a full-blown alcoholic. Phil mistreats his son’s adopted son who he sees as a sissy. Later on in a surprising turn he takes him under his wing, and tries to toughen him up, but no one would consider the man a good role model for the youth. The waythat Phil lovingly rubs oil on a saddle (as if it is the thing that he loves the most) that once belonged to a male mentor named Bronco Henry suggests that he is a sexual volcano about to blow. The scene makes as big a statement about displaced desire as a dozen old scenes of Dirty Harry holding a giant gun.

All of this seems to be building to some kind of drastic action. The title refers to an obscure Biblical passage in Psalms that a character reads which may push him into an unexpected path. The original passage reads: “Deliver my heart from the sword, my precious life, from the power of the dog.” Viewers will have to decide for themselves who the dog is, but the answer should be fairly obvious.

The understated spooky ending is one of the most memorable of the year and highly disturbing. But without giving too much away it won’t make much sense to viewers unless they carefully absorbed the earlier clues that make it possible.

To top it off Radiohead’s lead guitarist/keyboardist, Jonny Greenwood (using brass, strings, woodwinds, and piano) has produced one of the most evocatively eerie avant-garde soundtracks of the year which goes perfectly with the film.

While I don’t think this film is either Cumberbatch’s or Campion’s crowning achievement (maybe it hurt that I saw it on the small screen), The Power of the Dog is still much wiser and more seductively powerful than the vast majority of films I have seen this year. Also, it has a good chance of getting multiple Oscar nominations, especially for Cumberbatch and Smit-McPhee.

Directed & Written by:    Jane Campion. Based on Thomas Savage’s
 novel of the  same name
Starring:    Benedict Cumberbatch, Kristen Dunst, Jesse
Released:    101121 (USA)
Length:    128 minutes
Rating:    R for cattle castration, language, and violence

THE POWER OF THE DOG © 2021 Netflix
Review © 2021 Alternate Reality, Inc.