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.

120 Nominations. 23 Categories. 53 Films. One Big Night.

Did I really go through all of the nominations for this year’s Oscars to figure out which films received the most nominations? I did. This year, 53 different films have been recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for their cinematic excellence.

One question I ponder quite often when it comes to film is, “What separates a good film from a great film? A great film from an epic film?”

One question I ponder quite often when it comes to film is, “What separates a good film from a great film? A great film from an epic film?” Some of it boils down to personal taste, yes, but most cinephiles (yours truly included) would argue there are certain elements which comprise any film worth its stock, pun very much intended. The first and most important of these elements is cohesiveness. All the parts of a film must work in conjunction with one another to tell a certain story. You can have a great script but it’s worthless if you have mediocre actors reciting lines from it. You can have GOATs like Meryl Streep acting in your movie but if your script is subpar, no amount of Streeping will save it.

For me, a great film is a film where everything is not only in balance but complementary. There’s subtlety, nuance, and most important of all—craft.

For me, a great film is a film where everything is not only in balance but complementary. There’s subtlety, nuance, and most important of all—craft. A great actor can make you experience several different emotions in the same scene. A great set can transport you back through time. A great cinematographer can transcend time and space to make you see things in ways you’ve never seen them before. A score, crafted just so to ebb and flow within a film’s narrative, can emphasize elements that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

An epic film not only has all of the elements of a great film, but a certain je ne sais quoi that elevates it above the pack, that makes it timeless. An epic film is larger than life even when the story it’s telling is small in scope.

And an epic film? An epic film not only has all of the elements of a great film, but a certain je ne sais quoi that elevates it above the pack, that makes it timeless. An epic film is larger than life even when the story it’s telling is small in scope. It has a universality that makes it resonate with people from all walks of life, from all places and all times. When I think of epic films, I think of The Godfather. The Wizard of Oz. Gone with the Wind. Sunset Boulevard. Titanic. All of these have elements working in conjunction with one another, and all have not a small amount of magic cooked in for good measure. They quite possibly will outlast time, and rightfully so.

See below for a list of all the films nominated for an Academy Award this year. The number in parentheses beside each film indicates how many nominations it has received this Oscars season.

  • The Power of the Dog (12)
  • Dune (10)
  • Belfast (7)
  • West Side Story (7)
  • King Richard (6)
  • Don’t Look Up (4)
  • Drive My Car (4)
  • Nightmare Alley (4)
  • Being the Ricardos (3)
  • CODA (3)
  • Encanto (3)
  • Flee (3)
  • Licorice Pizza (3)
  • The Lost Daughter (3)
  • No Time to Die (3)
  • The Tragedy of Macbeth (3)
  • Cruella (2)
  • The Eyes of Tammy Faye (2)
  • Parallel Mothers (2)
  • tick, tick…Boom! (2)
  • The Worst Person in the World (2)
  • Affairs of the Art (1)
  • Ala Kachuu – Take and Run (1)
  • Ascension (1)
  • Attica (1)
  • Audible (1)
  • Bestia (1)
  • Boxballet (1)
  • Coming 2 America (1)
  • Cyrano (1)
  • The Dress (1)
  • Four Good Days (1)
  • Free Guy (1)
  • The Hand of God (1)
  • House of Gucci (1)
  • Lead Me Home (1)
  • The Long Goodbye (1)
  • Luca (1)
  • Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom (1)
  • The Mitchells vs. the Machines (1)
  • On My Mind (1)
  • Please Hold (1)
  • The Queen of Basketball (1)
  • Raya and the Last Dragon (1)
  • Robin Robin (1)
  • Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (1)
  • Spencer (1)
  • Spider-Man: No Way Home (1)
  • Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (1)
  • Three Songs for Benazir (1)
  • When We Were Bullies (1)
  • The Windshield Wiper (1)
  • Writing with Fire (1)

The 94th Academy Awards ceremony will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, on March 27th, 2022.

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.

The Nominations Are In

First of all, I’d like to thank the Academy for choosing to reveal this year’s Oscar nominees on my birthday. It was truly a fantastic way to begin the celebrations. Overall, I’d say I’m happy with the choices this year. I was holding my breath when they announced the nominees for Best Actress because I was so afraid Kristen Stewart was going to be snubbed. Thankfully, she pulled out a nomination and who knows? Bella Swan may be walking away with an Oscar come March 27th.

Now I’d like to compare my personal choices in eight major categories with the choices made by the Academy. Without further ado, here they are:

My Choices: Best Picture

  • Belfast
  • CODA
  • Drive My Car
  • Dune
  • King Richard
  • Licorice Pizza
  • The Lost Daughter
  • The Power of the Dog
  • The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • West Side Story

Official Nominations: Best Picture

  • Belfast
  • CODA
  • Don’t Look Up
  • Drive My Car
  • Dune
  • King Richard
  • Licorice Pizza
  • Nightmare Alley
  • The Power of the Dog
  • West Side Story

It looks like the Academy agreed with me on all but two films: The Lost Daughter and The Tragedy of Macbeth. I knew The Lost Daughter was a long shot but I’m really offended about Macbeth. In place of the films I picked, the Academy chose Don’t Look Up and Nightmare Alley. All of the films are worthy of the distinction but there can only be so many nominees.

My Choices: Best Director

  • Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza
  • Kenneth Branagh, Belfast
  • Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal, The Lost Daughter
  • Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car

Official Nominations: Best Director

  • Kenneth Branagh, Belfast
  • Ryûsuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car
  • Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza
  • Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog
  • Steven Spielberg, West Side Story

So I overshot on Maggie Gyllenhaal. Sue me. Four out of five isn’t bad.

My Choices: Best Actor

  • Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog
  • Peter Dinklage, Cyrano
  • Andrew Garfield, tick, tick… Boom!
  • Will Smith, King Richard
  • Denzel Washington, The Tragedy of Macbeth

Official Nominations: Best Actor

  • Javier Bardem, Being the Ricardos
  • Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog
  • Andrew Garfield, tick, tick… Boom!
  • Will Smith, King Richard
  • Denzel Washington, The Tragedy of Macbeth

Switch Dinklage and Bardem and I nailed it. I’m not surprised Bardem secured a nomination given how much the Academy loves movies about show business, but I still remain unimpressed with his performance. I may need to watch Being the Ricardos again and reevaluate my opinion. If I do, you all will be the first to know.

My Choices: Best Supporting Actor

  • Bradley Cooper, Licorice Pizza
  • Ciarán Hinds, Belfast
  • Troy Kotsur, CODA
  • Jesse Plemons, The Power of the Dog
  • Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog

Official Nominations: Best Supporting Actor

  • Ciarán Hinds, Belfast
  • Troy Kotsur, CODA
  • Jesse Plemons, The Power of the Dog
  • J.K. Simmons, Being the Ricardos
  • Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog

I’m not surprised about J.K. Simmons. For one thing, he’s already won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role once and the Academy tends to reward industry veterans. Combined with that, he was a very convincing William Frawley. Up until now, the award has all but sat atop Kodi Smit-McPhee’s mantle. Now, it’s anyone’s guess who will walk away with Oscar gold. One thing that’s working against Kodi Smit-McPhee is that his costar Jesse Plemons is competing against him in the same category. Greater odds have been surmounted but now that Simmons is in the ring, we’ll have to wait until the night of the ceremony to see who will win.

My Choices: Best Actress

  • Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye
  • Olivia Colman, The Lost Daughter
  • Nicole Kidman, Being the Ricardos
  • Frances McDormand, The Tragedy of Macbeth
  • Kristen Stewart, Spencer

Official Nominations: Best Actress

  • Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye
  • Olivia Colman, The Lost Daughter
  • Penélope Cruz, Parallel Mothers
  • Nicole Kidman, Being the Ricardos
  • Kristen Stewart, Spencer

Frances McDormand is usually a safe bet, but I guess the Academy has decided she’s been recognized enough in the past several years. At any rate and once again, four out of five isn’t bad.

My Choices: Best Supporting Actress

  • Caitríona Balfe, Belfast
  • Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter
  • Ariana DeBose, West Side Story
  • Ann Dowd, Mass
  • Kathryn Hunter, The Tragedy of Macbeth

Official Nominations: Best Supporting Actress

  • Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter
  • Ariana DeBose, West Side Story
  • Judi Dench, Belfast
  • Kirsten Dunst, The Power of the Dog
  • Aunjanue Ellis, King Richard

I’m the most angry about Kathryn Hunter being snubbed. Did the Academy voters even watch The Tragedy of Macbeth?

My Choices: Best Original Screenplay

  • Belfast
  • Don’t Look Up
  • The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun
  • King Richard
  • Licorice Pizza

Official Nominations: Best Original Screenplay

  • Belfast
  • Don’t Look Up
  • King Richard
  • Licorice Pizza
  • The Worst Person in the World

Four out of five. That appears to be how I’m trending.

My Choices: Best Adapted Screenplay

  • CODA
  • Dune
  • The Lost Daughter
  • The Power of the Dog
  • The Tragedy of Macbeth

Official Nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay

  • CODA
  • Drive My Car
  • Dune
  • The Lost Daughter
  • The Power of the Dog

Well, that’s it. Let me know what you think. Like the rest of you, I’ve got a lot of movies to watch.

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.