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.

Film Review: The Lost Daughter (2021); Directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal

The Lost Daughter (2021); directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal

Elena Ferrante is one of my favorite writers, so you can imagine how nervous I was when I first heard that The Lost Daughter (2008) was being adapted as a feature film. To give you some context, I have yet to watch a single episode of HBO’s My Brilliant Friend, which is based off Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. The series, which includes My Brilliant Friend (2012), The Story of a New Name (2013), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014), and The Story of the Lost Child (2015), follows two friends, Elena and Lila, from the time they are little girls to when they are elderly women, through love, marriage, heartbreak, and not least of all the changing sociopolitical landscape of their neighborhood in Naples, Italy.

I tried to watch an episode when it first came out, but those books mean too much to me to have them sullied by a less-than-sensational adaptation. There’s a chance it’s decent, yes, but I am not that much of a gambler.

There is no better marriage than that between literature and film, but only when it’s done right.

Then I found out that Maggie Gyllenhaal would be helming the ship as both director and screenwriter of The Lost Daughter, and quelle intrigue, I was starting to feel a little hopeful. There is no better marriage than that between literature and film, but only when it’s done right. Finally, I heard that Olivia Colman was starring as the lead and that sold me. Colman, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Anne in Yorgos Lanthimos’s 2018 film The Favourite, is a fierce, intelligent, and inimitable talent. She’s nearly unmatched.

Colman, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Queen Anne in Yorgos Lanthimos’s 2018 film The Favourite, is a fierce, intelligent, and inimitable talent. She’s nearly unmatched.

I mean, how many actors do you know who can hold their own (much less shine, as she did) when paired with someone like Sir Anthony Hopkins? The answer is not many, of course.

The idyllic scene is almost too idyllic, as if something dark and primordial is lurking just beneath the surface, waiting for the veil of darkness to ensnare whom it may.

In The Lost Daughter, Colman plays Leda Caruso, a professor and scholar of comparative Italian literature on holiday in Greece. The idyllic scene is almost too idyllic, as if something dark and primordial is lurking just beneath the surface, waiting for the veil of darkness to ensnare whom it may. The bowl of fruit in Leda’s rented apartment, at first sight so inviting, conceals rot. The gentle breezes blowing through her bedroom carry an insect to her pillow which startles her awake and stains her pillow with its blood.

The shifting tectonics of the fractured idyll create an atmosphere of unease which pervades the entire island.

The shifting tectonics of the fractured idyll create an atmosphere of unease which pervades the entire island. One day, a boisterous family interrupts Leda on the beach and asks her to move her lounge chair so they can all sit close together, unbroken. Owing them nothing and caught off-guard by their crassness, Leda (at first politely) tells them no. She is not interested in moving. Some viewers might watch this scene and think, Why doesn’t she just move? It’s not that big a deal, right? But it’s not really that simple, either. Some people’s lived experiences socialize them to be protective of any space they’re able to carve out for themselves. Naturally, they become fiercely protective of that space and those boundaries. As they should. As we all should.

Some people’s lived experiences socialize them to be protective of any space they’re able to carve out for themselves. Naturally, they become fiercely protective of that space and those boundaries. As they should. As we all should.

After her initial run-in with some of the members of the family, Leda makes a connection with Nina (Dakota Johnson) after Leda finds Nina’s daughter Elena when she goes missing on the beach. Then Leda does something that at the time seems strange—she steals Elena’s doll. Nina and the rest of her family search high and low for the doll, even going so far as to offer a reward for its safe return. Nina is worn threadbare. Elena is fractious and inconsolable. All the while, Leda is surreptitiously caring for the doll—cleaning it, buying it clothes, and caressing it much like one would an infant.

Nina is worn threadbare. Elena is fractious and inconsolable. All the while, Leda is surreptitiously caring for the doll—cleaning it, buying it clothes, and caressing it much like one would an infant.

Intermittent flashbacks show Leda as a young mother interacting with her daughters, Bianca and Martha. Anyone can see that she loves her daughters fiercely but lacks the mothering instinct often idolized in the popular culture. She feels smothered, bombarded. Every plea and poke strips her of something she’d much rather keep exclusively for herself. She’s like a beachcomber dodging scores of dive-bombing pelicans, a trapeze artist balancing on an ever-thinning wire. She cycles through irritation, rage, and agony like they’re outfits picked for different days of the week. When she begins getting recognized for her scholarship, she feels the pull toward escape like an iron filing to a magnet. Once a successful and handsome colleague (Peter Sarsgaard) gives her the professional validation she seeks as well as the sensual adulation she craves, the frayed apron strings are all but severed entirely.

She feels smothered, bombarded. Every plea and poke strips her of something she’d much rather keep exclusively for herself. She’s like a beachcomber dodging scores of dive-bombing pelicans, a trapeze artist balancing on an ever-thinning wire.

I won’t spoil the ending, mostly because I want everyone who reads this blog and everyone I know in real life to watch this film. Maggie Gyllenhaal and Olivia Colman have gifted us with one of the most honest depictions of motherhood ever seen in any medium. Many scholars have waxed poetic about the divided feminine for years, as anyone who’s had to listen to a lecture on the Madonna-whore complex can tell you. But, Gyllenhaal moves the dial beyond this simplistic dichotomy to encompass all the parts of womanhood seldom spoken about in tandem with motherhood. And she does so, with the help of Colman and Johnson, of course, without placing a value judgment on any of these planes of existence. These women are simply allowed to be, in all of their glorious complexity. That in itself is a tremendous achievement.

The Lost Daughter received a limited theatrical release beginning on December 17th, 2021 and began streaming on Netflix on December 31st, 2021.

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: October 23rd, 2021

If anybody is gonna sit on Ryan Gosling’s face, it’s gonna be me!

Grace Hanson (Jane Fonda), S01, E01 of Netflix’s Grace and Frankie

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.