Film Review: The Power of the Dog (2021); Directed by Jane Campion

Film poster for Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog (2021)

Review

The Power of the Dog was Netflix’s latest and greatest (so far) attempt to secure an Oscar for Best Picture. It had to sting to lose to another streaming player, Apple TV+, which took home the gleaming statuette for crowd-favorite CODA. In addition to Best Picture, CODA also won in the categories of Best Adapted Screenplay (Sian Heder) and Best Supporting Actor (Troy Kotsur, who is now the first Deaf man to win an acting Oscar). For the longest time in the campaigns leading up to the big night, it was The Power of the Dog’s night to shine. With 12 nominations across the board, how could it lose? But it did. In fact, Netflix’s powerhouse Western only took home one statuette on Oscars night — for Best Director (Jane Campion).

But let us not judge a film by its accolades. The truth is, The Power of the Dog is an incredibly powerful yet extremely subtle film, its brilliance easily overlooked if one isn’t paying close enough attention.

The Power of the Dog is an incredibly powerful yet extremely subtle film, its brilliance easily overlooked if one isn’t paying close enough attention.

Jane Campion’s searing portrait of toxic masculinity and repressed sexuality, set against the backdrop of Montana in the 1920s, is in my opinion one of the greatest films of the 21st-century so far, though it’ll probably be years down the line before the majority of cinephiles agree with me. In it, Benedict Cumberbatch gives what is perhaps his most unsympathetic performance yet. It’s arguably his best. As Phil Burbank, Cumberbatch is ruthless, sardonic, and haunted. Campion, who made history at this year’s Oscars ceremony for being the first woman to be nominated for two directing Oscars (winning this year), is a master at creating atmosphere. The vast and wide-open spaces of Montana make for an interesting canvas upon which she paints her tale. Each character, from Cumberbatch’s Phil Burbank to Kirsten Dunst’s beleaguered Rose Gordon, is given more than enough room to explore their respective neuroses, their own private darknesses that spill over into their interactions with each other and with the land itself.

Each character, from Cumberbatch’s Phil Burbank to Kirsten Dunst’s beleaguered Rose Gordon, is given more than enough room to explore their respective neuroses, their own private darknesses…

What makes The Power of the Dog so interesting as a Western is its multilayered exploration of queerness. Now, if you ask any historian worth their salt, they’ll tell you there was all kinds of gay stuff going down in the American West. Put frankly, cowboys were riding each other just as often as they were riding broncos. If you ask a heterosexual purist, they’ll tell you John Wayne would never. And Wayne probably wouldn’t have. But John Wayne wasn’t a real cowboy. He was mostly a fiction. An idealized idol. A paean to hyper-masculinity. Cumberbatch isn’t a real cowboy, either, but his portrayal of one is more honest than Wayne’s ever was. Sorry Duke.

Put frankly, cowboys were riding each other just as often as they were riding broncos.

The central conflict at the heart of The Power of the Dog is between Phil and Rose’s son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). In fact, the opening lines of the film (spoken by Peter) speak to this conflict, which the viewer has not yet been made privy to: “For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?” What kind of man indeed?

When we meet Peter, though, he looks ill-equipped to protect or save anyone. Lanky and effeminate, his first scene in the film shows him making paper flowers for table settings that Phil will soon sneer at. Looking more closely, the paper flowers could very well be a metaphor for Phil’s repressed homosexuality, which is why he views them with such disdain. Where Peter is delicate and precise, Phil is callous and bombastic. Peter moves through the world like every step must be taken gently, as if the slightest deviation may trigger an explosion or perhaps expose him to the world. Phil, however, revels in his contempt for all of humanity, but most especially for Rose, who ends up marrying his brother George (Jesse Plemons).

Peter moves through the world like every step must be taken gently, as if the slightest deviation may trigger an explosion or perhaps expose him to the world.

This isn’t the first mainstream Western film to address themes of homosexuality. The last really good Western we had that did so was Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005). But while Brokeback was at its essence a love story, The Power of the Dog is a story of an unhappy family in fractures. Don’t expect the spirits of Jack and Ennis to manifest in Phil and Peter, because that’s not the kind of story Campion is telling. In fact, a viewer not used to looking for queer subtext may miss that element of the film entirely, so subtle is its execution. While Phil’s queerness is thickly-veiled under layers of ostentatious brutality, Peter’s is as wide-open and hyper-visible as the plains which serve as the backdrop to Campion’s film.

While Phil’s queerness is thickly-veiled under layers of ostentatious brutality, Peter’s is as wide-open and hyper-visible as the plains which serve as the backdrop to Campion’s film.

I’m not going to do the film a disservice by spoiling the ending and telling you what happens, but it’s definitely a wow moment. It’s also calculatingly understated, like most of the elements in the film. I love a good film that doesn’t make an exhibition of itself. I like hints and silences and ruminations. Not everything has to explode in order to burn.

The Power of the Dog is available to stream on Netflix.

Thanks as always for being a faithful reader of The Voracious Bibliophile. If you like what you see, please like, comment, follow, and subscribe to my email list to get notified of new posts as soon as they drop. You can also email me at fred.slusher@thevoraciousbibliophile.com or catch me on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest @voraciousbiblog. Keep reading the world, one page (or pixel) at a time.

Take a Break Already

Have you ever had one of those days where it felt like it was all you could do not to tear out your hair and scream at the top of your lungs? I’m sure all of us have felt like that at one time or another. For me, Monday was definitely one of those days. I woke up with a stuffy head and sinus drainage which soon morphed into one of those violent phlegmy coughs that seem to emanate straight from the pits of hell.

Being the good boss and coworker that I am, I didn’t call in. Some managers make it to the top of the proverbial scrap heap and see their lofty vantage point as a sign that they can take it easy, that other people can do the hard work while they sit back and relax a little. I’m not one of those managers. Since I took over my store as General Manager, I’ve been working harder than ever and sick days are all but out of the question. In a perfect world, lean payroll budgets wouldn’t exist and I could have enough wiggle room to accommodate about 20% more in labor that I currently do. But that’s not the world I live in.

In a perfect world, lean payroll budgets wouldn’t exist and I could have enough wiggle room to accommodate about 20% more in labor that I currently do. But that’s not the world I live in.

My store has also been undergoing one of the biggest resets we’ve ever done. We’re eliminating some product lines entirely while expanding others and making room for other high-interest product that our buyers predict will sell better. They even approved the capital for new carpet(!) which I’ve been all but begging for for years. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all about creating efficiency in my store and assuring that what we offer is what people actually want to buy, but there’s also a not-insignificant part of me that is change-averse. That’s putting it mildly, actually. I avoid change like the plague.

I avoid change like the plague.

Being a manager, though, especially one responsible for an entire store or division, necessitates that one be an agent of change as well as its champion. So let’s just say I’m working on it. Getting back to Monday, I knew that I had a bunch of markdown and repricing projects facing me so I wanted to get started on those when I first came in. I choked down some antihistamines and decongestants and soldiered my way in, hoping that God would see fit to give me an easy-ish day. No such luck.

Being a manager…necessitates that one be an agent of change as well as its champion.

First I ran out of some of the discount stickers I needed. I found some blank ones I could write on, and while not a perfect solution, it got the job done. Then I had an employee who didn’t show up. Now, this employee is usually (almost always) tardy. He’s great when he arrives so I try to give him the benefit of the doubt, especially considering his long commute. When he was over 30 minutes late, I called him. I’m glad now that I didn’t leave a sarcastic message in his inbox because he was in a car accident on the way to work. He’s fine, apart from a bloody nose and other minor injuries, but it shook me up. Out of all of my employees, he’s been at my store the longest, and I consider him to be a dear friend and not just a coworker.

I started writing this as I ate my lunch on Monday. I had to stop and get back to it at the end of my shift on Tuesday, which was my eighth in a row. Now it’s Wednesday, and while I didn’t have to work today, I was violently woken up from my late evening nap by my phone alerting me that we were under a tornado warning. I’ve spent the past few hours checking in on my employees and other friends in the path of the storms, and I’m exhausted.

Honestly, I just wish the universe would take a break for a little bit. Between everything that’s been going on with SCOTUS and the all-but-certain end of Roe v. Wade, to the ongoing pandemic most people are choosing to now ignore, and my own personal troubles, I am never not tired. And I know I’m not alone in that. I read somewhere once that even when life seems unbearable, the most important thing we can do, for ourselves and others, is to bear witness. To share.

I read somewhere once that even when life seems unbearable, the most important thing we can do, for ourselves and others, is to bear witness. To share.

Sharing what we’re going through shows other people they’re not alone in their struggles and the shared empathy created between people who make that connection makes the load easier to bear. And as much as I enjoy being a doom-scrolling latter-day prophet heralding the end times, I can’t help but be hopeful. There are so many good people out there doing good work and it’s always my goal to be among their ranks.

Thanks as always for being a faithful reader of The Voracious Bibliophile. If you like what you see, please like, comment, follow, and subscribe to my email list to get notified of new posts as soon as they drop. You can also email me at fred.slusher@thevoraciousbibliophile.com or catch me on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest @voraciousbiblog. Keep reading the world, one page (or pixel) at a time.

All Aboard the ARC: HBR Guide to Crafting Your Purpose by John Coleman

HBR Guide to Crafting Your Purpose by John Coleman

***Note: I received a free digital review copy of this book from NetGalley and Harvard Business Review Press in exchange for an honest review. I have not received compensation for the inclusion of any links for purchase found in this review or on any other page of The Voracious Bibliophile which mentions the HRB Guide to Crafting Your Purpose, its author, or its publisher.***

If I’m being honest, I approach most self-help and/or personal growth books with a healthy dose of skepticism. It’s not that I’m a Negative Ned or a Pessimistic Paul, per se. It’s just that the market is so saturated with hundreds (probably thousands) of these titles that contain basically identical content that I can’t help but roll my eyes whenever I see a new one hit the shelves. Even the anti-self-help, cool, trendy, swear word-laden titles have started to reach critical mass. At first it was cool to read these because you could be like, “Look at me! I’m bettering myself but in a cool hipster way. F$&$ yeah!”

Even the anti-self-help, cool, trendy, swear word-laden titles have started to reach critical mass.

Even worse than the typical fare one finds in the Personal Growth section of bookstores are the ones that purport to help you find your true purpose in life. Purpose. Such a heavy word. Just listen to anyone who’s achieved a modicum of success in any given field and they’ll tell you all about how they found their true purpose in life. For the rest of us, these people serve as shining examples of our own glaring mediocrity. If only we could find our purpose, maybe we too could enjoy the level of personal and professional fulfillment that these people have.

Just listen to anyone who’s achieved a modicum of success in any given field and they’ll tell you all about how they found their true purpose in life.

The truth, however, is a little more complex than that. I recently got the opportunity to read and review the HBR Guide to Crafting Your Purpose by John Coleman, published by Harvard Business Review Press. In it, he managed to dismantle some of the skepticism I’ve accumulated over the years through the careful analysis of his own research, plenty of evidence from other reputable sources to back it up, and more than a few real-life examples to provide illustrations for the concepts he lays out in his book. All in all, I was impressed.

Coleman begins his book by discussing the “crisis of meaning” modern society is currently experiencing. Many (if not most) people go to work simply to earn a paycheck. They find no meaning in the work they perform and their days are filled with drudgery and the overwhelming sense that nothing they do matters or provides value. Because of the proliferation of information technologies which allows them to be accessible at all times, they also have no work-life balance. When life is all work and no play, misery quickly ensues.

When life is all work and no play, misery quickly ensues.

One of Coleman’s main assertions throughout his book is that purpose is not something inherent or static. It is fluid and malleable. More than anything, it is something that can be crafted by each individual to provide meaning and happiness in each area of one’s life. It is not always something that one finds, but rather something that can be designed to fit the needs and desires of each individual based on their backgrounds and values.

More than anything, it [purpose] is something that can be crafted by each individual to provide meaning and happiness in each area of one’s life.

Another thing I liked about Coleman’s book are the numerous exercises he included to allow the reader the chance and space to put to work the concepts which he discusses. Whether someone is fresh out of high school or college or already somewhat (or even mostly) established in their chosen career field, I can’t think of anyone that wouldn’t benefit from Coleman’s wisdom.

Whether someone is fresh out of high school or college or already somewhat (or even mostly) established in their chosen career field, I can’t think of anyone that wouldn’t benefit from Coleman’s wisdom.

The HBR Guide to Crafting Your Purpose was released by Harvard Business Review Press on January 11th, 2022 and is available to purchase wherever books are sold.

Thanks as always for being a faithful reader of The Voracious Bibliophile. If you like what you see, please like, comment, follow, and subscribe to my email list to get notified of new posts as soon as they drop. You can also email me at fred.slusher@thevoraciousbibliophile.com or catch me on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest @voraciousbiblog. Keep reading the world, one page (or pixel) at a time.

Quote for the Day: March 25th, 2022

Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls: A Memoir by T Kira Madden

I can do things like that when I write—pluck any thread of want and weave a whole world.

T Kira Madden, Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls: A Memoir

Thanks as always for being a faithful reader of The Voracious Bibliophile. If you like what you see, please like, comment, follow, and subscribe to my email list to get notified of new posts as soon as they drop. You can also email me at fred.slusher@thevoraciousbibliophile.com or catch me on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest @voraciousbiblog. Keep reading the world, one page (or pixel) at a time.

Quote for the Day: March 24th, 2022

You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.

James Baldwin

Thanks as always for being a faithful reader of The Voracious Bibliophile. If you like what you see, please like, comment, follow, and subscribe to my email list to get notified of new posts as soon as they drop. You can also email me at fred.slusher@thevoraciousbibliophile.com or catch me on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest @voraciousbiblog. Keep reading the world, one page (or pixel) at a time.

Quote for the Day: March 23rd, 2022

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

Live in the present, make the most of it, it’s all you’ve got.

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

Thanks as always for being a faithful reader of The Voracious Bibliophile. If you like what you see, please like, comment, follow, and subscribe to my email list to get notified of new posts as soon as they drop. You can also email me at fred.slusher@thevoraciousbibliophile.com or catch me on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest @voraciousbiblog. Keep reading the world, one page (or pixel) at a time.

Quote for the Day: March 22nd, 2022

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

But who can remember pain, once it’s over? All that remains of it is a shadow, not in the mind even, in the flesh.

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

Thanks as always for being a faithful reader of The Voracious Bibliophile. If you like what you see, please like, comment, follow, and subscribe to my email list to get notified of new posts as soon as they drop. You can also email me at fred.slusher@thevoraciousbibliophile.com or catch me on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest @voraciousbiblog. Keep reading the world, one page (or pixel) at a time.

Quote for the Day: March 21st, 2022

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

When we think of the past it’s the beautiful things we pick out. We want to believe it was all like that.

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

For the next few days, my Quote for the Day is going to be taken from The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood’s terrifying near-future dystopian novel about a woman named Offred, a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead who subverts the violent patriarchy that keeps her enslaved.

Gilead is the successor nation to the United States, which was defeated in a war that’s referenced in different parts of the novel. This gleaming new country is a theocracy where women exist in a caste system determined by their level of reproductive viability. Women who are of childbearing age and fertile are sex slaves in the houses of their Commanders, the men who are in charge of Gilead. Essentially, they’re on the same level as livestock, their worth tied exclusively to their output, i.e. children. They are forbidden to read, own property, or hold political office. They have no civil rights and are expected to remain silent, obedient, and modest.

With the surge of anti-abortion legislation sweeping the country, Atwood’s tale has never been more timely.

With the surge of anti-abortion legislation sweeping the country, Atwood’s tale has never been more timely. Abortion has been all but completely banned in the South and parts of the Midwest, and Roe v. Wade is under threat of being overturned. This summer, the Supreme Court is expected to make a ruling in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. Dobbs challenges a Mississippi law that would ban the majority of abortions after 15 weeks of gestation. This draconian law would force pregnant people to carry their unwanted pregnancies to term in all but the most extreme cases of fetal deformity.

Forcing someone to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term is an act of abject cruelty. The people who want to do this say they are acting in defense of the fetus, and let’s say for argument’s sake that that’s true. If these people are truly pro-life, let them put their money where their mouths are. If people are forced to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, then we should also expand the social safety net by leaps and bounds. Increase funding for WIC, SNAP, HUD subsidies, welfare cash payments, and universal Pre-K-12 education. Pass common sense gun control laws. Pay reparations to the descendants of people who were enslaved. Institute a wealth tax and use the tax monies to create millions of jobs through a Green New Deal. Do all of that to show you are truly pro-life or shut up.

Thanks as always for being a faithful reader of The Voracious Bibliophile. If you like what you see, please like, comment, follow, and subscribe to my email list to get notified of new posts as soon as they drop. You can also email me at fred.slusher@thevoraciousbibliophile.com or catch me on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest @voraciousbiblog. Keep reading the world, one page (or pixel) at a time.

Quote for the Day: March 20th, 2022

How High We Go in the Dark: A Novel by Sequoia Nagamatsu

I was living at the edge of the world and everything else seemed like a distant dream.

Sequoia Nagamatsu, How High We Go in the Dark: A Novel

Thanks as always for being a faithful reader of The Voracious Bibliophile. If you like what you see, please like, comment, follow, and subscribe to my email list to get notified of new posts as soon as they drop. You can also email me at fred.slusher@thevoraciousbibliophile.com or catch me on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest @voraciousbiblog. Keep reading the world, one page (or pixel) at a time.

Quote for the Day: March 19th, 2022

Catch 22: A Novel by Joseph Heller

Anything worth dying for is certainly worth living for.

Joseph Heller, Catch 22: A Novel

Thanks as always for being a faithful reader of The Voracious Bibliophile. If you like what you see, please like, comment, follow, and subscribe to my email list to get notified of new posts as soon as they drop. You can also email me at fred.slusher@thevoraciousbibliophile.com or catch me on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest @voraciousbiblog. Keep reading the world, one page (or pixel) at a time.