Also reviewed this week: King Richard and Ghostbusters: Afterlife
The Power of the Dog (12A, 128mins)
In John Ford’s films, the untamed west was a splendid wilderness, full of beauty and promise, spoilt only by the greed of men. But Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog is set in a landscape terrifying in its emptiness. Settlers cower in vast and draughty houses, absurd in their clumsy mimicry of urban pretensions, blocking out the desolation outside.
New Zealand’s reigning arthouse queen might seem an unlikely candidate to revive the western, but in her first feature in 11 years, Campion has created a film as powerful in its way as Ford’s finest.
Masculinity is a core theme, and the variously toxic expectations it imposes, but one could also read into her splendidly photographed epic a stark disquisition on the state of America’s soul.
Benedict Cumberbatch, far from his comfort zone, delivers a barnstorming portrayal of Phil Burbank, a Montana rancher who smells like a dog and behaves like one too.
It’s 1925, but Phil frowns on the shiny new automobile his brother George (Jesse Plemons) drives, preferring to stick to horses and ride the open range. George and he run a profitable enterprise together, and though Phil calls his younger brother ‘Fatty’, the pair seem almost uncomfortably close.
While on the road they share the same bed, and Phil likes at all times to know where his sibling is. So he’s not best pleased when George takes a fancy to a Montana widow, Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst). While Phil is rude, uncouth, a stranger to soap, George is fragrant, courteous, well turned out. Rose is impressed, and while Phil is otherwise occupied, the pair marry.
Rose comes to stay at the Burbank brothers’ rambling ranch, bringing along her teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), an awkward beanpole who wears jeans so stiff they squeak when he walks. Phil encourages his ranch hands to mock the boy, and call him a sissy: but Phil is much more enraged by the presence of Rose.
He loathes her on sight, and belittles her at every turn. She plays the piano indifferently, and whenever she practices, he mocks her efforts on his banjo, which he plucks with consummate skill. Around every corner, Rose finds a sneering Phil: pretty soon her nerves are shattered, and she’s at the gin.
Phil seems a monstrous brute, ignorant of the wider world, but there’s more to him than that. His handwriting is exquisite, and at one point we hear in passing that he was a star scholar at Yale.
This cowboy act is just that, a persona he has adopted in order to fit in. What is he hiding? Young Peter gets an idea when he finds a stash of bodybuilding magazines hidden on the ranch.
Phil is acting, but so is Peter. He draws well, and makes flowers out of paper, but he’s also fascinated by dead animals; behind that gormless stare, he’s not as gentle as he seems.
Phil is brutalised, by landscape and lifestyle, but also by his own perceptions of what society expects. And this, remember, is the American frontier in the early 20th century, its soil still stained with the blood of the Indian Wars: the only things anyone respects out here are money, guns and cattle. If Phil is the id in this scenario, George is the ego, but his mannerly veneer seems brittle too, and in Peter we have another classic American archetype — the seething outsider, yearning to take revenge.
Jane Campion adapted her story from a 1960s novel by Thomas Savage, and though it’s set in Montana, she filmed it among the peaks of Otago, a bleak and beautiful backdrop that suits the story perfectly.
The paradox of Christianity being loudly professed by settlers with blood on their hands makes all attempts at moralising in this story problematic. The landscape, and its violent settlement, has made cruelty endemic, and sensitive souls like Rose are bound to be consumed by it.
Kirsten Dunst is excellent as the unfortunate Mrs Burbank, and Jesse Plemons’ George quivers with repressed emotions. And as for Cumberbatch, he swaggers through this film and glowers down the lens as though he despises us all. But old Phil protests too much, and will do anything to hide his secrets.
Rating: Five stars
In the year 2000, when Venus Williams won her first Wimbledon singles title, her father Richard jumped out of his seat and yelled “Straight outta Compton!”, shaking Pimms sippers to their core. What he meant was that by force of will, with a little help from god-given talent, Richard had groomed two girls from an LA ghetto and turned them into champions. In King Richard, the Williams family’s achievements are put in context.
Will Smith, admirably focussed, is Richard, a pig-headed Compton security guard who decides that his two girls, Venus (Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (Demi Singleton) will become great tennis players. They train on ratty public courts, watched by gang-bangers who sometimes give Richard a going over.
But nothing will deter him, and over time his plan begins to work. Reinaldo Marcus Green’s film is good at illustrating the petty prejudice the Williams’ endured in a super-white sport. It’s also very entertaining, and the tennis itself is wonderfully realised. The problem is that this is an authorised version, which means that Will Smith’s portrayal of Richard, while persuasive, is ultimately toothless.
Rating: Three stars
Ghostbusters is a strange and fitful franchise. The charm of the 1984 original was dented somewhat by a watery 1989 sequel, then nothing at all was heard until the 2016 release of an all-female version which, though competent, bombed. Time to call it quits, you might have thought, but in Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Jason Reitman has taken up the torch first raised by his dad, Ivan, and created a likeably retro back-to-basics family comedy.
When single mom Callie Spengler (Carrie Coon) hears that her estranged father has died, she moves into the old man’s farm with her teenage kids. The place is a dump, but 12-year-old Phoebe (Mckenna Grace) is intrigued by the discovery of a basement laboratory, and realises that her late granddad was a ghostbuster. Jason Reitman’s film nicely evokes a Spielbergian 1980s mood, and teases out the ghostbusting plot patiently.
Weaknesses in the storyline, and the lack of a satisfying villain become problematic eventually, but Afterlife is very funny at times, and Carrie Coon is excellent, as is Paul Rudd, who plays a matey but not especially responsible high-school science teacher.
Rating: Three stars