Wednesday, December 8, 2021

On THE POWER OF THE DOG

 I clicked onto Netflix and started watching this film about ten minutes after midnight. Honestly, I thought I'd get sleepy and stop watching 30 minutes later. Wrong. I was rivetted to it right up to the stunning final scene. Jane Campion directed THE POWER OF THE DOG. It will be a crime if she does not get an Oscar nomination for Best Director. The New Zealand filmmaker was previously nominated in that category for 1993's THE PIANO. That film brought Holly Hunter the Oscar for Best Actress, Anna Paquin the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and earned Campion an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. 

THE POWER OF THE DOG is based on a novel of the same name by Thomas Savage. Campion wrote the screenplay. Her extraordinary film is a classic western. But not the kind of western like classics such as RED RIVER, HIGH NOON, SHANE or even BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. It has the ethos of a classic western with an electric psychological current that runs through it and provides some shocks with new looks at Old West type characters.       

This is a tale of family dynamics, family cruelty, love, images of manhood and toxic masculinity. We go to Montana in the 1920s. Think of Elizabeth Taylor as the young bride in George Stevens' 1956 film, GIANT. It was the 1920s. Taylor's character has married, left the verdant surroundings of her wealthy Maryland home to live in the huge home of her wealthier cattle rancher husband in an isolated, arid part of Texas. 

Kirsten Dunst is outstanding as Rose, the widow mother with a grown son. She remarries and is swallowed up by anxiety. She is shaken by the expectations she feels to be a perfect 1920s wife in the West. She has married a shy, sweet, lonely man whose brother is an intelligent brute of a cowboy. He's verbally abusive. We see this during a dinner scene before Rose remarries. She cooks and cleans in an establishment. Her son, Peter, acts as waiter. The son seems to be a delicate character. His goal is to study medicine and surgery in college. He has an artistic side. He makes beautiful paper flowers that his mother proudly displays as table decorations. Phil, the brutal brother, loudly ridicules the flowers and Peter, the waiter, as he and other ranch hands sit down to eat.

There's a dinner party scene where Phil verbally embarrasses his sister-in-law. We know that she feels like she's a paper flower. Not the real thing. An imitation forced to pose as the real thing.

I won't go into much more detail about the plot and action. I want you to experience it and feel those jolts of surprise that I did. Also, this excellent film is very subtle. It demands your attention. This is not a feature that one can live-tweet as it airs. To do so would take your attention away from very important visual moments. This could be the film that finally brings Kirsten Dunst an Oscar nomination. She's been delivering terrific performances ever since she was a little girl in 1994's INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE. She's due -- and she's at her peak in Campion's film as the widow who remarries and falls into alcoholism. Her real-life partner, actor Jesse Plemons, plays the shy brother she marries. Benedict Cumberbatch seems a sure-thing for a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance as the brutal brother, Phil. Kodi Smit-McPhee is fascinating as the whip-smart, ridiculed son who endure hearing the word "faggot."  I predict a Best Picture Oscar nomination.  Here's a trailer.


I love how Jane Campion made great use of wide-open spaces in her visuals, visuals in which brown and earth tones dominate. The wide-open space accentuates the loneliness and alienation of characters. It reminded me a bit of scenes in George Stevens' GIANT and how director Fred Zinnemann shot some scenes in his 1955 adaptation of the Broadway musical OKLAHOMA! In that story, there's rivalry between the farmers and the cowhands. Yet, with all the wide-open space of Oklahoma, the rivalry seems silly because there's obviously room for everybody.

To me, the idea of Jane Campion directing a new version of Rodgers & Hammerstein's OKLAHOMA! is pretty cool.

THE POWER OF THE DOG is currently on Netflix.  It runs about 2 hours and 5 minutes.


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