The Power of the Dog

Written by Patrick Hao

90/100

For a film set on the plains of 1925 Montana, and shot against the beautiful wide vistas of Jane Campion’s home country of New Zealand, The Power of the Dog often feels hauntingly constrained. That is because Campion’s film is one of intense emotions caused by the unspoken, whether it is because of social mores or simply because they couldn’t.. The great director is no stranger to such themes in her oeuvre. She literally renders her lead character a mute in The Piano.

Reductively, The Power of the Dog has been described as a movie about toxic masculinity. And while that is true, the film is interested in the greater ways the oppressive forces of systems pray on people. The system at play here is never spoken of but is one of class, money, and gender. The film follows the brutish ranch hand Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his entrepreneurial brother George (Jesse Plemons), although you wouldn’t know they were brothers by looking at them. George is clean-shaven but for his mustache, concerned with respectability instilled by their wealthy parents. Phil is covered head to toe in dirt, and happily so. He is cruel, calling his brother Fatso with glee. While George handles business, Phil handles a group of ranch hands. Phil is concerned by how his men think of him which makes him resentful of the wealth he comes from. The push-pull of these two disparate men is palpable. At one point, Phil even describes their kinship as akin to Romulus and Remus. 

Their business finds them staying in an inn run by Rose (Kirsten Dunst), who along with her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) serves the brothers and ranchers dinner one night. While George offers Rose kindness, Phil is outright cruel to the socially awkward Peter. Phil is threatened by Peter allowing himself not to be bound by traditional masculinity. This cruelty eventually extends to Rose, who marries George, as Phil becomes resentful to her as well. A psychological cat and mouse game brews between Phil and Rose, leading to Rose finding solace in alcohol. 

One set-piece after the other, Campion unfolds this piece of unnerving cruelty people can inflict on each other. George needs Rose to be a presentable wife to high society. Rose needs to live up to an ideal that she feels unable to reach. Phil too is not entirely the ideal man he wants to be, and as a result, lashes out on everyone around him. Caught in the middle of this struggle is the coming of age tale of Peter. He is intellectual, sweet, and sensitive. But, masculinity threatens to pull him away from his natural disposition. We learn that at one point, Phil used to be an intellectual as well, but strayed away for a life as a cowboy.

Campion moves slowly through these proceedings and it takes a while to truly understand what she is attempting to do. But, Campion is a master of her craft and once she latches on, she does not relent. This is psychological warfare after all, in which the interiority of all these characters gets magnified as the tension ramps. Campion is able to explore a gamut of thoughts just through a simple closeup. This is all underscored by another great score by Jonny Greenwood with his harsh dissonant chords, ratcheting up the tension of these mental tug of wars. 

The four central actors, Cumberbatch, Dunst, Smit-McPhee, and Plemons are all exceptional in this four-hander chamber piece, playing off each other. Cumberbatch in particular is physically rigid like a hardened wood, but when he speaks, his voice coils like a python. It is unnerving. Very soon it becomes a psychological Mexican stand-off between the four. With love, tenderness, bitterness, and resentment being the weapons of choice. 

By the end of The Power of the Dog, it becomes unsuspectingly devastating. It is as if Campion is able to instill in the viewer the same feelings of repressed emotions the characters are facing. The ache lingers long after the credit rolls.

The Power of the Dog Trailer

The Power of the Dog is currently playing in limited theatrical release and will begin streaming on Netflix on December 1st.

You can follow Patrick and his passion for film on Letterboxd and Twitter.

Jungle Cruise

Written by Taylor Baker

55/100

Disney’s new theme park ride inspired film Jungle Cruise is a tale of two films, something not all that surprising when you factor in that 7 writers worked on the film. 4 writers for the story, 3 more for the screenplay. We start out the film with a run of the mill exposition of the MacGuffin–a magical flower in Brazil–that morphs into an imploring speech by Jack Whitehall’s McGregor. Requesting that he be allowed to inspect a recently unearthed treasure from a learned men’s society. The speech he’s delivering was in fact written by his sister, Lily played by Emily Blunt. Hijinks ensue, leading to a chase sequence in which a maniacally accented Austro-Hungarian Prince played by Jesse Plemons has our modern Mary Poppins dangling precariously from a ladder outside a window, with the now stolen arrowhead she so desired safely tucked away. Rather than hand it over to him in exchange for her safety she opts to drop down onto a double-decker bus parked just beneath her, courtesy of her brother, and we’re off to the races!

This first introduction is reminiscent in multiple ways to the 1999 classic The Mummy. Whether period, the charming brother side character (John Hannah), and the heroine who seemingly knows more about the legend than anyone else Evie (Rachel Weisz) the makings of a good well rounded adventure story all seem to be here. But before we go too far down that bend in the river, there’s another apt comparison and one that had me sold on the premise of the project long before I ever saw a trailer, the idea that it was a modern riff on a storied classic, The African Queen. As similar as Emily Blunt’s Lily feels to Weisz’s Evie from at least that introduction the actual character of Lily that Emily continues to inhabit feels directly informed, if not lifted from Katharine Hepburn’s fantastic turn as Rose Sayer in the 1951 classic. Strong minded and unflappable, Blunt’s character finds a natural evolution to Hepburn’s Sayer in adorning herself with breeches rather than dresses. And dressing down The Rock’s Frank for his behavior and jokes rather than his alcoholism. Which Frank demonstrates plenty of.

Eventually Lily and McGregor make it to Brazil while old Frank is trying to get his engine back from Paul Giamatti’s gold toothed crony Nilo. Hijinks once again ensue and once everyone arrives in place to the character situations we were prepared for in the trailer Plemons’ Prince Joachim erupts from the water and begins shooting. They get away as expected, there’s too much runtime left for a quick offing, for those of us checking our watches, and we get 30-40 minutes more of dad jokes(a personal favorite of mine), character development that isn’t sloppy, and fun asides. Then it begins to slip, the sexless heap of a man that is Dwayne Johnson begins to visually long toward Blunt, the joviality of very flawed crazy human characters is eschewed for CG conquistadors that make one long for the old days of Davy Jones’ lifelike depiction in the Pirates series 15 years ago, and the charm of it all evaporates the further down the river we go.

The legend we’re introduced to in the beginning of the film turns out to be real. And it appears our characters goose is cooked. Character secrets get revealed. We hear the full legend of Aguirre, and it’s pitifull when mentally compared against the Herzog classic. Magic flowers(our MacGuffin from the beginning) that may grant eternal life/heal all ailments/lift curses are now every characters absolute goal. The eyerolling romance between Blunt and Johnson is forced. Disney isn’t backing down though, and rather than let any relationship between the two megastars simmer just out of frame they opt instead to give us a tropey underwater sequence where they *have* to lock lips to exchange oxygen(Really? This took you 7 writers to figure out?). It’s a boorish character choice, and one that stands in stark contrast to the self aware dialogue spewed by both Johnson and Whitehall the first half of the film. I won’t give away the finale, but I will say the cruise does indeed come to an end. For now at least the Jungle Cruise ride has a story. Let’s hope the next time Disney puts a portion of their theme park on the big screen they use half as many writers, and keep things more on the rails.



Jungle Cruise Trailer

Jungle Cruise is currently screening theatrically and on Disney+