Two of the year’s best films.
The Power of the Dog
It’s rare that a movie built primarily on subtext and ambiguities is this laser-focused and resonant with its themes. That just speaks to the immense talent of Australian writer/director Jane Campion and her superb quartet of actors. The Power of the Dog isn’t just subtle to be up to its own ass though, it’s subtle as an effort to be as awkward, cryptic, and closeted as its protagonist, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), almost in a bid to understand him and his pain better. The movie never comes out and explicitly says it, but everything hints at Phil being a repressed homosexual. Phil is a hard-ass, old-school cowboy, covered head to toe in dirt, sweat, and body odor with a personality to match, while his brother, George (Jesse Plemmons), is well-groomed, sensitive, and a total pushover. George meets a cook at a local diner, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and her effeminate origami and hula-hoop crazed teen, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and upon tasting her very mediocre-looking fried chicken, decides to marry her.
This throws Phil into a panicked tail-spin, but we’re never told exactly why. It could be that he fears the idea of being alone and is jealous knowing he’ll never get married because he isn’t attracted to women and it’s 1925. George’s line to Rose shortly after they marry, “I’m just so happy to not be alone.” entertains this theory. It also could be that Phil hates women and blames them for turning men like him gay. A theory that is also entertained when Phil says to Rose’s effeminate son, Peter, “Don’t let your mom turn you into a sissy.” And yet it could also not be about Rose at all, but just her effeminate son, Peter, who he bullies mercilessly yet still desires to groom to be his bottom. Maybe Phil sees in Peter what he can never be – someone unabashedly themselves. Regardless, Phil strikes up a sort of mentorship with Peter that unfolds in ways both expected and wildly unexpected and speaks to how repression can rob you of your humanity. On the surface, nothing much extravagant happens in this film. There are no big explosions, plot twists, gunplay, double-crosses – all things we come to expect from classic American westerns. Below the surface, everything is happening. Line droppings here or there reveal large chunks of personal histories that show characters’ motives in entirely new contexts while a piano and banjo duet carries with it the emotional violence and weight of an assault.
The film is incredibly well put together without a single frame wasted, beautifully shot, and edited with the precision of a scalpel and tweezers. Jonny Greenwood‘s score is one of the year’s best and adds even more layers to a real baklava of a motion picture. Enough cannot be said about Benedict Cumberbatch‘s booming yet slyly nuanced performance, maybe the year’s best, and Kirsten Dunst has never been this good. Jesse Plemmons is solid in the only role that exists merely for plot development and Ender’s Game‘s Kodi Smit-McPhee is a complete revelation. It’s been five days since I’ve watched it and there’s still so much to process still. I’m glad this is on Netflix so I can revisit it but it’s going to turn off most people. Seriously, can’t wait for all the confused and/or angry Facebook posts. It’s not a movie that you can multi-task with or watch on your iPhone. It’s not a film for entertainment’s sake, it’s a film for art’s sake, and that’s decidedly not for everyone. That’s totally fine. For those who like cerebral, challenging dramas, The Power of the Dog delivers ten-fold. It demands your attention both during and after its runtime because what it’s communicating to you doesn’t come to fruition until hours after completion. It has all the ingredients of an off-putting, pretentious piece of ego-stroking, but it actually has the focus and intelligence to pull off its near impossible ambitions. Grade: A- (Netflix and In Theaters)
Speaking of a movie that’s certainly not for everyone, Dutch auteur Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Showgirls) ‘s seemingly trashy but ultimately much deeper organized religion satire/dark sex comedy is sure to infuriate all of your devoutly Catholic friends. That’s because Verhoeven and co-writer David Birke (2016’s Elle) don’t even have enough respect for its “allegedly” true story of a nun experiencing the stigmata, to treat it seriously. There are some very David Wain-esque comedic set pieces here and goofball dialogue exchanges spread throughout the film but it’s all met by exquisitely earnest dramatic performances – the whole cast, from the powerhouse Virginie Efira as the titular lead to the reliably understated Charlotte Rampling as the cynical mother superior, is absolutely excellent. That makes it even funnier, especially a scene where two gorgeous young nuns sit naked on the toilet together, having a serious conversation while shitting their brains out. The over-the-top diarrhea sound effects bring to mind Van Wilder more than The Song of Bernadette. While it is certainly raunchy and proudly campy, it’s all for a purpose. Benedetta paints the church at this time as the antithesis of God’s love, an organization existing on bribes and quid-pro-quo, with power-hungry faux-prophets all trying to one-up each other with how much they pretend to believe in God. It’s very clear from the on-set that Sister Benedetta is manufacturing all of these so-called miracles, but you don’t feel as bad seeing as though every other character is just manufacturing their own righteousness to ultimately fit their personal agenda. Her agenda at least includes an open mind about sexual exploration of any orientation, so fuck it, let’s go with her. Grade: B+ (In Theaters)