Sometimes it is difficult to see why a film is celebrated so much. When I started on a journey to watch every film that won the #AcademyAwards this year, I was sure I would be in for more than one surprise. In fact, I was looking forward to it too. But I was more than just surprised while watching. I was actually wondering how this film won the Oscar. Let me elaborate.
The Power of The Dog is a western, psychological drama film that follows the lives of Phil Burbank, George Burbank, Peter Gordon and Rose Gordon played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Kirsten Dunst respectively. Phil Burbank is the quintessential cowboy. He is brash, uncouth, unkempt and arrogant. He likes his life the way it is and has regressive ideas about masculinity and sexuality which he holds on to dearly. The film explores various themes like masculinity, relationships, sexuality, love, grief, resentment and jealousy through the eyes of Phil, Peter and Rose as George marries Rose much to his brother's disapproval. How he adjusts to the newlyweds and the step-nephew while holding on to his own idiosyncrasies forms the basic plot of the film. The Power of The Dog is a coming-of-age of sorts when seen from Phil's perspective, with a Death in the Gunj kind of ending.
The film is based on a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage of the same name. The writing of the film is all over the place. It is divided into different chapters like a novel but one doesn't get the sense of reading it. All we get are long scenes that frankly lack substance and don't really prod the plot forward well until the last chapter where we see the character of Peter make a reappearance. Leaving something to imagine and poor writing are two completely different things and in the way, the characters are fleshed out, it is only the latter. The evolutionary arcs of the characters, barring Phil to a certain extent, are ambiguous... I'm just being delicate here.
We don't know anything about why Peter Gordon is so aloof, diffident and even coy. All we get to see is that he is a reserved young adult with an air of uncomfortable reserved air about him. Rose Gordon, (played by a fantastic Kirsten Dunst) on the other hand transforms from a chirpy woman before marriage to an alcoholic and paranoid one post her marriage to George Burbank. George Burbank, who finds it physically painful to "hitch a few words together" continues to stay that way throughout the film. We only get a vague idea that he doesn't like his brother and loathes him when he doesn't approve of his marriage to Rose Gordon. There is no clear reason for his dislike towards his own brother other than a couple of passing references in exposition about his unclean manners. All the other characters that play their perfunctory roles are quite frankly redundant and don't affect the plot in any manner whatsoever.
However, despite the unfocused screenplay, the performances are surprisingly good. Benedict Cumberbatch is phenomenal as Phil. The arrogance, resentment, empty pride and bitterness come out so well that at one point you would wish him dead. Kirsten Dunst as Rose shines too, portraying the demure-to-crazy arc beautifully well. It is Kodi-Smit McPhee who steals the show with his performance as Peter Gordon. With a frail, lanky frame and delicate features, the way he transforms from a delicate flower into a weathered bark of a tree is phenomenal.
There is this one scene where Rose plays the piano that her husband George bought for her to play. He asks her to play a particular piece and Rose decides to dust off her skills by practising. She starts to play a tune on the piano. Just as she starts to practise, Phil enters the house and goes straight to his room throwing a disdainful look at her. Rose is disturbed but continues to play the tune. We hear the banjo being played in the background. Rose is flustered by it even further and struggles to play the tune on the piano. Each time she stops and starts over, the banjo does the same (Phil does the same). After a point, an exasperated Rose gives up playing, intimidated by Phil who finishes the tune nonchalantly. We see Phil's face only towards the end of this scene when he smiles having successfully intimidated her. Kirsten Dunst beautifully shows the emotions of fear, irritation, diffidence and finally exasperation in this wonderful scene.
What the film lacks in writing - which I think is a tough job to accomplish especially in films that involve a lot of psychological power play - Jane Campion more than compensates in the direction. Probably that's why the film won the award for best direction. Jane does a phenomenal job in more than just making up for the poor writing. This makes one wonder if the film would've won more awards if it was written by someone else. But, I digress.
My favourite stretch of direction comes through towards the final stretch of the film. After Phil finds out that Rose had sold/given away the hides, he breaks down and hollers at his brother, George. While he's shouting at him we see Peter hiding and listening to the whole conversation (in short and sporadic cuts) and by the time Phil is done we see him walk away. In a while, he returns bearing good news that he has some hide kept aside. It is only at this point that we come to know why he decided to go on to the mountain all by himself and cut the skin from a dead cow/ox/buffalo. He stays with Phil till he finishes making the rope the whole night. The next day, we see Phil waking up sick with his hand getting worse (earlier a splinter tears his skin and he nicks his finger while castrating a bull). While George takes him to the hospital, Phil searches for Pete who is shown to be hiding in his room. Later Phil dies and the post-mortem reports show that he died of anthrax. This is when the shot of the infected and dead cow, Pete rearing its skin and later on mentioning that he has some hide with him makes sense. If this is not brilliance in direction I don't know what is. The final shot of Pete looking down from his window as his mother, Rose kisses George is a beautiful echo of the first-ever dialogue that we hear as the film opens, "For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?"
This is a slow film. Some may even call it difficult. Some, like me, may even question the worthiness and deservedness of an Oscar. But, I think the award couldn't have gone to a better director. First of all, it is so difficult to make a film based on a novel. Secondly, it is all the more challenging to make it engaging. This requires really tight writing. Like I said earlier, the writing of the film isn't that great. I think Jane proves her mettle in direction by making a film way better than it was written. The two scenes I have mentioned in this review are testimony to the fact. Watch this film if you're a curious cinephile like me. It's streaming on Netflix.