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.

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Spencer

Written by Taylor Baker

82/100

Neon is seeking to follow up its Parasite success with Oscar 2021 hopeful Spencer. Which details a few days in the life of Princess Diana played by Kristen Stewart over a Christmas holiday. It’s Pablo Larraín’s second project of the year following his 8 episode 400 minute adaptation of the Stephen King novel Lisey’s Story, which starred Julianne Moore alongside Clive Owen, a welcome sight to those fond of Children of Men. Larraín is on the surface repeating the process that led to Jackie, one of 2016’s best films which had arguably the best performance by a lead actress that year. It starred Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy following the death of her husband and president of the United States, John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Spencer, though it omages to the tragedy of Diana’s death, is instead interested in her life, uniqueness, spirit, and maddening situation. Our first glimpse of Diana as played by Stewart shows her lost driving by herself to the Christmas family gathering. At one point she pulls into a Fish and Chips restaurant and asks the cashier and everyone if they can tell her where she is. “There’s no signs.” She says defeatedly. It’s a charming introduction that not only puts us on her side but makes us love her, just a little bit.

The film proceeds forward with an abrasive encounter with Allistair Gregory played deviously well by Timothy Spall, whom most may know as Peter Pettigrew/Wormtail from the Harry Potter films. In which Diana must have her weight recorded before joining the family for sandwiches. We get the sense that Spall’s Gregory is a nefarious force, perhaps one of the many surrounding the royal family that we’ve all heard tell about. Diana’s dresser Maggie, played by Sally Hawkins seems to be a lone voice of friendship in the callous halls of Windsor until she is unceremoniously and without warning sent back to London.

It’s little moments like this and larger ones, such as when her curtains are sewn together or she must put on the same pearls her husband bought for his mistress that we feel frustration and helplessness alongside her. Her very identity seems quashed by the routine and demands of being a royal when all she seems to want is her father’s worn coat and her boys. It’s no wonder to us as an audience as the film continues why she would resort to cutting herself an instance or purging herself in another. She seems to lack control over everything, so she’s asserting order where she can.

Larraín’s team is comprised of top talent working cohesively toward one vision. Jonny Greenwood serves as composer of the film, his score underlays the film with emotionality. Timed perfectly to build anticipation, and where appropriate suspicion. Claire Mathon who recently collaborated with Mati Diop on Atlantics and Celine Sciamma on both Petite Maman and Portrait of a Lady on Fire is cinematographer. Using depth of field and exterior landscapes to enormous effect. And if that wasn’t enough Larraín reteams with editor Sebastían Sepúlveda for their fourth collaboration.

Spencer as Larraín tells us at the very beginning before it starts is “A fable from a true tragedy.” Which cleverly divorces itself of the need to be as accurate and flawless in detail as Jackie had been and audiences would doubtlessly have demanded. Its interest and success lies in watching Stewart turn in arguably her best performance, which enthralls and affects equally. This performance is one of our eras finest, it’s asides with Sean Harris’s Chef Darren and Hawkins’s Maggie are rueful moments of joy that don’t seem cheapened by fictionalization, they instead seem like flourishes that bring Stewart’s depiction of Diana the person to life. Despite all the film’s dourness when Diana comes to mind I’ll think of her as she was at the end of this film, looking into a canal with her boys behind her eating fried chicken.

Spencer Trailer

Spencer is currently playing in limited theatrical release.

You can follow more of Taylor’s thoughts on LetterboxdTwitter, and Rotten Tomatoes.