*** Alert: This Review Contains Major Spoilers ***
On the surface, it may not seem like the big Western thriller “The Power of the Dog” and the intimate indie flick “Passing” have a lot in common. But they do.
In addition to being available on Netflix, both of the 2021 releases are adapted and directed by women. The former is from revered auteur Jane Campion and the latter is actress Rebecca Hall’s debut effort. Each of the films are set in the U.S. during the 1920s and portray ill-fated characters who hide their true identities. Both movies feature artsy cinematography, deliberate pacing (that’s code for slow), and retro-repression themes deemed timely.
Add it all up and you’re looking at awards bait. With her nomination, Campion is in prime position to win the Oscar as well as the BAFTA and DAG, which Hall is also nominated for. Despite this success, the filmmakers forgot one thing: to be entertaining. As a result, their adequate works target industry accolades over audience engagement.
That’s not to say the 1929 source material for “Passing” isn’t interesting. Nella Larsen’s novella focuses on two childhood friends of color who’d occasionally pass as white. When they reunite as adults, the women learn each has risen in class even though they took different paths.
Irene (Tessa Thompson) lives as a Black woman with her Black husband (André Holland), who is a successful physician. Together, they are raising their two Black sons in the middle-class section of Harlem. Clare (Ruth Negga) has opted to pass full-time, keeping her true ethnicity a secret from her white, racist husband (Alexander Skarsgård) and their light-skinned daughter.
As Clare realizes she wants to reconnect with her African American culture, she inserts herself into Irene’s world. This endangers the calm and control Irene has established in her immaculate home. Indeed, not one thing is askew and nary a sound can be heard from the tree-lined street outside. Alas, such stylized sterility makes the environment, and the characters, feel unlived in.
Also problematic is the casting of Ethiopian-Irish actress Negga. Although her southern accent is convincing, her physicality doesn’t match the description of Clare in the book. Rather than a stunning beauty who uses her passing looks to get what she wants, Negga plays the character as a childlike waif who appears more innocent than manipulative.
Both the look and sound of British actor Benedict Cumberbatch seem stilted in “The Power of the Dog.” Nevertheless, he and Negga scored Golden Globe, BAFTA and SAG nods as well as Chicago Film Critics wins for their performances. With 10 Critics Choice Award nominations and 12 Academy Award nominations, “The Power of the Dog” is sitting pretty for big Oscar wins.
Based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, “The Power of the Dog” presents three different portrayals of manliness. First, there’s Montana misogynist Phil (Oscar-nominated Cumberbatch), who uses antihero machismo to mask his closeted homosexuality — a third act reveal that appears clear from the start.
His brother George (Oscar-nominated Jesse Plemons) balances masculine and feminine traits in a healthy way. He’s comfortable enough in his own skin (even though Phil berates him for being overweight) to help his love interest Rose (Oscar-nominated Kirsten Dunst) with domestic chores. Once married, he looks to be a decent husband despite insisting his wife play the piano.
And then there’s Rose’s effeminate son Peter (Oscar-nominated Kodi Smit-McPhee), a medical student who, like Phil, is cruel to animals. Called a “Nancy Boy” by taunting cowboys, Peter presents himself as harmless, even victimized. But despite his disarming appearance, this man proves to be an alpha dog with the heart and follow-through of a killer.
If this review hasn’t already spoiled the twist (you were warned!), the first lines of the film will. In order to protect his mother from a bullying Phil, Peter murders him with an anthrax-laden hide. Of course, it’s serendipitous that Rose just happened to give all the other hides away. As a result, Peter conveniently offers the infected one to Phil, who coincidentally cut his hand. These contrivances make the ending feel unearned.
Another perplexing part of this adaptation is the reduction of Rose, since she has a bigger role in the book. Why she isn’t given more screen time is curious considering Campion built a career on creating female-focused films. Except for a few moments with Thomasin McKenzie, “The Power of the Dog” lacks the quirky nuances used to fuel the unconventional heroines typically seen in Campion’s past work.
Also missing is the surreal imagery associated with Campion’s movies—a man with a question mark on his head in “Sweetie” (1989); illuminated hoop skirts doubling as tents on the beach in “The Piano” (1993); and the unique dream sequences that convey sexual yearning in “The Portrait of a Lady” (1996). Even the vast vistas in “Dog” seem generic compared to the ones in “The Piano,” which juxtapose man-made furniture against Mother Nature’s stunning landscape.
Instead of relying on her own distinct visual vocabulary, Campion reuses the famous doorway shot from John Ford’s “The Searchers” (1956). Like last year’s Oscar winner Chloé Zhao, who borrowed the same take for “Nomadland” (2020), it appears female filmmakers must echo male movie-makers to gain praise. Ironically, that’s the unintended message about societal masculinity “The Power of the Dog” delivers.