With all due respect to the many wonderful films and performances that got shut out of the next Academy Awards, I can’t bring myself to get upset with any of the Oscar snubs this year. This is chiefly because — as I’ve already said multiple times — 2021 was an unrelenting clusterfuck in which everyone was in a mad rush to get their content out the door. Nobody got around to seeing everything noteworthy that came out last year, and every year-end list — with ZERO exceptions — had glaring omissions. It stands to reason that the Oscars would have its share of high-profile oversights as well.

Another huge factor is the rise of online streaming. Many different streaming services cropped up while in-person multiplexes weren’t viable, and who’s got the money or patience to sign up for all of them? This was — and still is! — a significant hurdle in accessing many current Oscar favorites. For example, I personally don’t care much for Amazon, so Being the Ricardos will be out of my reach for the foreseeable future. I don’t have an Apple+ account either, so I won’t be seeing CODA anytime soon.

But I do have access to Netflix, and The Power of the Dog just happened to wrangle more nominations for the streamer than any other film released last year. Hell, all I have to do is see that movie and I’m pretty well caught up. So let’s get to it, shall we?

We set our stage in Montana, in the year 1925, and my interest is already piqued. A western set in the Roaring ’20s is a curious change of pace, as most western films are typically set in the mid-to-late 19th century and much further southwest than Montana.

This film is very much about the conflict between the rugged, untamed individualism of the lawless Wild West, versus the encroaching influence of money and government and advanced technology coming in from the East. It’s a common theme in western films, though authority is typically personified by a developing railroad, a corrupt sheriff and/or politician, some local robber baron, etc. Compare that to this movie, in which the steady advance of progress is personified by the humble yet versatile and ubiquitous motorcar. Consider the significant difference between recovering from the Civil War and recovering from the Great War.

What we’re looking at here in Montana might be the last remaining vestiges of the Old West, and we see enough well-to-do assholes lurking around that it may not last much longer. The 20th century is in full swing, with technology and culture advancing at a rate unprecedented in human history. Thus the traditional old/modern conflict archetypal of westerns is much more fraught here, built on a more visibly delicate balance.

Anyway, the plot concerns Rose Gordon and George Burbank, played by the actual husband/wife team of Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons. Mrs. Gordon is a widow running a local inn, George owns a cattle ranch nearby, and the both of them get married at the end of the first act. And everything would be fine with them, if it wasn’t for their respective families.

Rose’s son (Peter, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) is, uh… well, he’s autistic. There’s no two ways about it, he is plainly and totally autistic. This might just be the most nuanced and authentic portrayal of autism I’ve ever seen in a movie, and I mean that as a high compliment. Still, this is the 1920s, so everybody thinks that Pete is touched in the head and nobody has any idea what to do with him. It certainly doesn’t help that Pete wants to be a surgeon like his late father, and that ambition manifests in some (*ahem*) disturbing ways.

Then there’s the matter of Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), George’s brother and business partner. Here we have a case of two opposite brothers. George is clean and put-together while Phil obstinately covers himself in mud and washes in a local stream. George is more on the husky side, while Phil is so tall and lean that he repeatedly calls his brother “fatso” as a term of endearment. Most importantly, Phil is a disciple of the dearly departed local legend Bronco Henry — allegedly the greatest horse rider in all of Montana — which gives him pull with the local cowhands that George simply doesn’t have.

In summary, George is the brains of the operation while Phil provides the grit. George is the brother who can interact with money and modern society while Phil gets his hands dirty with the cattle. The big problem here is that Phil is an outright bastard. He deliberately pisses off anybody and everybody, most especially his brother, his new sister-in-law, and the quirky new nephew he immediately nicknames “Miss Nancy.”

The contrast between them comes to a head when George invites his well-heeled parents and some high-society friends over to introduce them to his new wife. It goes terribly, because George is still just a rancher living and working out in the sticks. For all of George’s ambitions and pretensions to the contrary, he’ll never have a place in this high society. Compare that to the boorish, mean-spirited, outright filthy Phil — say what you will about him, but Phil knows exactly what he is and he’ll make no apology for it. Phil knows perfectly well that modern society will never accept him, so why should he waste his time bowing and scraping and paying homage to the higher classes?

But then we get to the halfway point. Peter comes back home from school for the summer, he discovers something about Phil that I won’t spoil here, and it’s like we’re shifting gears into another film entirely. George fades almost entirely into the background, and Rose develops a drinking problem that serves basically no purpose except to get her out of the way. All the previously discussed themes about “the untamed west vs. modern high society” are never discussed or developed any further.

Oh, and there’s Thomasin McKenzie. Remember her? Leave No Trace? Jojo Rabbit? Last Night in Soho? Yeah, she turns up just long enough to collect a paycheck. Such a reprehensible waste of a phenomenal young actor.

The second half of the movie is devoted entirely to the interplay between Phil and Peter, something that took up maybe fifteen seconds of screen time in the first half. And to be clear, it’s a fascinating dynamic that goes on between them. The film never lets us entirely forget that Phil is a psychopath without any morals or restraint to speak of, Peter is a socially awkward kid far more cunning than anyone gives him credit for, and Peter knows something that Phil doesn’t want getting out.

With every scene between these two, we’re left wondering if these two really are finally making nice with each other, and when some trap is finally going to spring. The score from Jonny Greenwood helps beautifully with this regard, illustrating the tension and antipathy that the characters don’t dare express outwardly. Even better, the resolution to this complex duel of wits is diabolically clever and superbly executed.

From a narrative perspective, the ending makes perfect sense with regards to the motivations and methods of the characters involved. The ending also makes perfect sense with regards to the generational motif, passing the torch from Bronco Henry to Phil to Peter. But with regards to Phil as a symbol of the Old West, standing in defiance of the apathetic wealthy culture swarming in from the East… I’m sorry, maybe it’s just me, but I don’t see how the ending makes sense in that context. I’m having a really hard time connecting those dots.

The Power of the Dog is a tough one to gauge. It’s more than mere Oscar-bait — any film so ambitious and creative deserves more than that pejorative. The performances are wonderful, the film is a technical marvel, the characters are compelling, and the film has so many wonderfully developed themes. The big problem here is the stark divide between the first half and the second half. We’ve got the George/Rose romance with its focus on class warfare, and we’ve got the Phil/Peter conflict about coming of age with a potentially abusive father figure. Each on its own makes for some damn good cinema, but the both of them in one movie don’t mix together anywhere near as well as they should.

If only the filmmakers could’ve found some way to dovetail all of this together into one cohesive climax, this would’ve been a masterpiece. As it is, the film is still worthy of a recommendation, but certainly not one I’d choose for the year’s best.


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