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"The Power of the Dog" 4K Review

During the second season of South Park in 1998 there was an episode mocking the Sundance Film Festival with the legendary crack that independent movies were all about "gay cowboys eating pudding." Mind you, this was seven years before Ang Lee's Oscar-nominated Brokeback Mountain came out, but it's been an evergreen meme that covers much of what gets prestigious awards acclaim. Why am I prefacing this review of Netflix's Oscar-nominated juggernaut The Power of the Dog with this reference? Oh, no reason. [/whistles]

 Written and directed by Jane Campion, who was the first woman to be nominated for Best Director (for 1993's The Piano, though she'll have to settle for being the likely third female winner after Katheryn Bigelow and Chloe Zhao), TPotD is up for a field-leading 12 nominations including Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Actor, Supporting Actress, and two Supporting Actor nods. It seemed destined to steamroll the field until CODA began its upstart worthy sleeper run.

 Set in 1925 Montana, we meet the wealthy cattle ranching Burbank brothers, Phil (Bernadette Cummerbund) and George (Jesse Plemons), as they drive their herd to town to be loaded on a train. George is a quiet doughy fellow who wears a suit and whom Phil frequently calls "Fatso." Phil looks no different than his ranch hands. dirty, wearing chaps, being a near parody of a manly man. (Not that there's anything wrong with that.)

In town, they and their crew dine and spend the night at the owned by Rose (Kirsten Dunst), whose son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), helps with waiting tables. Skinny and pale, Phil bullies him, using the paper flowers he crafted to light his cigarette, real bad hombre style. Later, George hears her crying and consoles her. Some time afterwards, he heads to town in his car to see her and seemingly immediately they're married and she's moving out to the ranch to Phil's displeasure. 

He thinks she's only after their money and trashes her in letters to their parents. When George buys her a baby grand piano since she had previously worked as a pianist for silent movies, her attempts to brush the rust of her chops leads to Phil subtly bullying her by first playing along with, then going full "Dueling Banjos" at her on his banjo upstairs. (If you have an Atmos-equipped home theater, this scene really shows it off as his banjo comes from the ceiling speakers.) The pressure for her to perform at a dinner party makes her crack and she becomes an alcoholic.

 When Peter comes out on summer vacation from school, Phil spies another easy punching bag as he calls the kid, whose hat looks to weigh more than he does, a "sissy" like manly men do. However, when he realizes Peter may've discovered something about Phil, he flips and becomes very friendly to the concern of Rose who is becoming more unraveled. 

If I've made the plot sound dense and complicated, my apologies, because so little happens in the two-hours-plus run time that I wondered if the story was going anywhere. Campion expertly does the show-don't-tell thing good movies are supposed to do, lacing in many clues and references that the astute view can slowly assemble into a cohesive picture. However, there ultimately remain so many unfinished details - there's a point where you should stop alluding and start explaining - that you never really get what's motivating the characters; we're just left to fill in the blanks. 

That's why when the story gets around to explaining What Phil's Deal Is, it's almost laughable and how explicitly obviously it's portrayed. It's as if Campion trusted her viewers' ability to keep up for 99% of the time, but decided to just bludgeon them with the Big Reveal, nudging and winking and shouting "GET IT?!?!?" so hard that even your sweet old great-grandma who never understood why that nice Liberace fellow never settled down with a loving lady would say, "Yep. Read you loud and clear the first five times you elbowed me in the ribs, Jane." And what happens at the end comes so far out of left field that it may as well have had Idaho license plates. 

On the bright side, Campion's direction in general is lovely; reminiscent of Terrance Malick's obsession with blades of grain and grass. While proceeding at a deliberate pace (polite way of saying slow), it never really drags into boredom, mostly because wondering what the heck this is leading to and the bizarre chamber horror score by Radiohead's Jonny Greenwood keeps the audience confused as to whether this is a Western or weird Eastern European Hitchcock pastiche. 

Where it starts getting into questionable territory is the performances. Dunst has a long IMDB page listing her habit of playing crushed out spirits going back to her Spider-Man appearances or Melancholia and it's on display here as well. Smit-McPhee is also quite good, almost making the crazy turn the plot takes at the end work as he squares off against Cummerbund. (Yes, I am deliberately messing with his name. He can dab his tears with his Doctor Strange money.) 

But Plemons is merely OK and his nomination seems more like the Academy was tossing invites to everyone in the cast. George is supposed to be the quiet one, but there's a fine line between being internal and no one being home. I know we're supposed to treat him as the new version of his lookalike Philip Seymour Hoffman, but as Morrissey sang he just hasn't earned it yet, baby. 

But the most problematic performance for me was Bandersnatch's. I never really felt like I was seeing Phil, but Cloversneech's imitation of someone playing Phil. A big part of this disconnect is that unlike seemingly endless numbers of British and Australian actors who play American characters with undetectable American accents because apparently there are no American actors, his has always rang untrue. When he debuted as Doctor Strange, I thought his accent sounded borrowed from Hugh Laurie's House accent and it's never improved. Phil and Steven Strange sound the same and when Phil tells Peter to not call him "Mr. Burbank", the echoes of Strange and Peter Parker having a similar conversation in Spider-Man: No Way Home added to the distraction.

Am I focusing too much on a ropey accent? I don't think so and here's why: While looking up something about the production and why they shot in New Zealand instead of Montana (A: budget constraints) which lead to some vistas that made me wonder if Hobbits or orcs were just over the hill, a video popped up with Boobookitty and Smit-McPhee doing press junket duty. I unmuted the player and was stunned to hear an accent coming out of Smit-McPhee's face. He's Australian! I have seen him in movies dating back to The Road and Let Me In in 2009 and 2010 and never had a clue he wasn't an American kid, same as with the young romantic couple in CODA who were English and Irish and never slipped. Blunderbuss just isn't very good at this.

The Power of the Dog - the title comes from Psalm 22 - is a film that beautiful on the surface, but somewhat empty on the inside. While I get that it's about loneliness, cruelty, depression, grief, sadness, retribution, flashes of full frontal male nudity and Hollywood's favorite Dark Secret That Controls Everything - you know, all that fun stuff that people watch movies for after a hard day at work - it's just too skeletal in detail for a movie of its length and Cumberbatch's (see? I can be nice) performance just didn't connect. And South Park was right.

Score: 5/10. Skip it. 


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