‘The Power of the Dog’ – Is it Really Oscar Worthy?

Much has been written and said about the 2021 film The Power of the Dog, scripted and directed by Jane Campion. Described as a “Western psychological drama” the movie has been nominated for 12 academy awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay.

All I can say is that I don’t get the hype.

I tried watching the movie the other night. It was so uninteresting that I lost track of the plot and ended up turning it off. Yet still the praise from critics continued, so I decided to give the film another chance.

I watched intently as the story unfolded in its meandering, blasé way. By the end I was praying for the film’s conclusion and to be put out of my misery. An incoming phone call saved me from suffering through the final few minutes.

Still, though, the praise from the critics continued, with predictions of The Power of the Dog being unbeatable in most of its Oscar categories. In particular, the critics praised the ending.

So, I sat down with The Power of the Dog for the third time. I made sure to watch the ending. It’s not a bad ending, but it certainly doesn’t make up for the two hours of cinematic drivel that come before it. In the end, the film is just plain bad.

But then again, I don’t have a long history of being in sync with the voting members of the Academy. I thought Titanic was awful. I thought Gladiator was a ho-hum formula piece with about as much Oscar value as The Fast and the Furious. And I thought The King’s Speech was about as interesting as an old tire.

The Power of the Dog stars Benedick Cumberbatch, Jesse Piemons, Kirsten Dunst, and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Cumberbatch is nominated in the Best Actor category, Piemons and Smit-McPhee are both nominated in the Best Supporting Actor category, and Dunst is nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category.

I am normally a fan of Cumberbatch. I thought he was incredible as Sherlock Holmes in the television series Sherlock that ran from 2010-2017. I think he is amazing as Dr. Strange in the Marvel cinematic universe. I even enjoyed his smaller roles like Little Charles in August: Osage County.

There is no doubt that Cumberbatch is a highly skilled and respected actor. However, he is painfully miscast in The Power of the Dog. He plays Phil Burbank, a rude, dirty, ranch foreman with a hidden secret working a sprawling cattle farm he owns with his brother George. George is the pilar of society, handling the business transactions necessary to keep the brothers wealthy. Phil does the dirty work.

I understand Cumberbatch’s desire to expand the types of roles he plays. It is always an interesting challenge when a skilled actor decides to take on a role far different then the types of characters they normally embrace. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. I wanted to like Cumberbatch, but ultimately, he was just unbelievable.

Piemons plays Phil’s brother George. He does an admirable job as the prim and proper head of the household, but it is far from an Oscar caliber-performance.

When George marries Rose Gordon, a widow with an odd teenage son, it enrages Phil. He sees Rose as coming in-between he and his brother and sets out to make her life and that of her son Peter a living hell.

I have always enjoyed Dunst as an actress, ever since she dazzled audiences as a child vampire in the cinematic adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire. She displays solid acting chops in The Power of the Dog, but it’s far from an Oscar worthy role. Maybe if the film was better, I would feel differently. But a good performance in a bad film doesn’t sing Oscar to me.

Smit-McPhee plays Rose’s awkward teenage son. Peter is effeminate and clearly homosexual, which causes him to be an outcast in 1925 Montana. In particular, he finds himself the focus of ridicule and taunting from Phil and the ranch hands. But Peter isn’t as innocent as his pretends. On the outside he is calm, not letting the taunts get to him. But inside his head, he plots.

Smit-McPhee is the only one of the nominated actors to even partially deserve Oscar consideration. However, in the end it seems the uniqueness of his character has more to do with his appearance than Smit-McPhee’s acting.

Knowing the Academy, The Power of the Dog will probably sweep the 94th Academy Awards on March 27, 2022.  That would be a mistake. Of the 12 Oscar nominations the film has received, the only ones with a modicum of deservedness are Kodi Smit-McPhee in the Best Supporting Actor category and Ari Wegner for Best Cinematography.

When it comes down to it, a bad film that requires repeated attempted viewings to get through just doesn’t belong in the Oscar field.

Peace. Love. Trust.

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