“The Power of the Dog”

Some novel-based films demand one to read the book. This is the case with Jane Campion’s much touted new Netflix release, “ The Power of the Dog”. While this may be a good thing, for certainly Thomas Savage’s 1967 book deserves the read, it should not be required in order to understand the film’s main theme of self hate.

There is much about this quasi- revenge film that is laudable. The acting is superb and the attention to period detail draws us in by the remembrance of things past. Even the cooking implements speak of the early 1900’s. Filmed in New Zealand, our setting is told to be a wealthy Montana cattle ranch in 1925. The owners are two very dissimilar brothers. One is a bully cowboy, who happens to be a Yale graduate in the Classics. The other a gentle soul, a college drop out who has trouble finding words to express himself. Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the master curmudgeon with the smart aleck mouth and mean spirit. He tells his younger brother, George, ( Jesse Plemons ) who he refers to as ” Fatso” that they were raised by a wolf like Romulus and Remus. The elder Phil is attached to George. They even sleep in the same room in twin beds ,though there are many available. Phil reminds George that their first cattle run together was twenty-five years ago. This fact is the one positive statement offered to his brother during the entire film .

There are housekeepers and cooks and heavily carved staircases and parlors. But then again there are rowdy ranch hands and heavy chaps and beautiful mountains and sloping foothills in big sky country. Cinematographer Ari Wegner captures it all. She glides the camera through all shades of brown from seamed stockings to bull testicles, from polished saddles to mud baths and secret watering holes.

The plot arc is set once Kirsten Dunst steps in as the “suicide widow” , the term coined by hateful Phil once he sees that George is smitten with Mrs. Rose Gordon. Rose has a very effeminate son, whom Phil delights in mocking and mortifying. In one scene, he has a dozen cowboys surround him on horses and call him “ Miss Nancy” and ” Little Lord Fauntleroy”. There is irony here since Rose’s son, Peter, will become anything but a “Goody-two-shoes”.

No viewer will be surprised that the brutal cowboy is a suppressed gay horse beater and bull castrator. There is no need for “ a big reveal” even before the sensual scene with the silk fabric caressing Phil’s genitals and face. To his credit, Cumberbatch makes us feel Phil’s loneliness. Jonny Greenwood’s score supports the popular songs of the era and enhances mood and suspense.

George and Rose marry. And more subject matter like alcoholism and anti-intellectualism is introduced. The film-script is complex. Dunst provides a multi-dimensional Rose. She is a grieving widow, a protective mother, a closet alcoholic, a berated and brutalized sister-in-law, a Native American sympathizer, and a kind and loving wife. Rose understands condescension. Dunst’s face makes us see her awareness as she tosses back her orange blossom cocktail. Dunst is good, if not better than Cumberbatch.

Jesse Plemons, as George, is perfection, minus the not too hidden body padding . The film would not be possible without him. Plemons is the perfect foil, whom it pains us to see locking the bathroom door to protect Rose’s privacy, and buying a baby grand to promote her amateurish piano playing. His George serves salad in Rose’s restaurant when she needs aid, and he cries because it is so nice to not be alone. George feels Rose is marvelous. Phil calls her “a cheap schemer”.

The hardest character to develop in the Biblical titled “ The Power of the Dog” is Peter, Rose’s son. Kodi Smith-McPhee plays the trauma- ridden teen, who has cut his father down from his suicide noose. Peter blows off taunts and ridicule by gyrating a hula hoop. He is an innocent coping until he hatches a revenge plan.

Phil Burbank is always looking at the far-off hills. He is impressed that Peter, too, sees the same barking dog-like shadow he has always seen. This seen cloud image marks them as the same. Phil begins to mentor Pete. He teaches him how to dry rawhide and braid rope. We get over- wrought symbols of posts being rammed into the ground. After Peter kills an injured rabbit to put it out of his misery, Phil praises him for his strength of will. Peter tells Phil, “ My father used to fear that I was too strong.”

The Psalm 22:20 ” Deliver my soul from the sword, my darling, from the power of the dog.” is what we are left to read. Yet, Rudyard Kipling’s rather silly poetic line, “..beware of giving your heart to a dog to tear..” makes more sense to this reviewer. The final frame of Peter seeing his mother and George happily coming home leaves him free to take his own life like his father did. Thus, the last frame of the braided rope tossed under the bed, a hand’s reach away. I will be reading Thomas Savage’s book for psychological clarity, because the film left too many questions.

“Black Mass”

Any film that begins with a tape recorder sputtering out  ” I am not a rat” and goes on to tell the story of the biggest informant -FBI -scandal in U.S. history lets you presume that codes of honor can be tricky. Based on the Dick Lehr and Gerald O’Neill’s NYT’s best seller, ” Black Mass: The Irish Mob, The FBI, and  A Devil’s Deal”, Director Scott Cooper does his best with a great cast and a weak,understated screenplay.

Shot in South Boston, this film is full of dark bars, grimy alleyways and industrial river sites. “There is trouble outside” becomes visceral. “Throw the first two punches” the street mantra. The music is heavy-handed and evocative of other crime-ridden films. See “Black Mass” for the acting not  for the cinematography. Though there are two exceptional camera shots: one an overhead pan of Jimmy reclining with his hands behind his head. We long to get into that psyche; yet, we really never do. The other memorable  photo still captures Joel Edgerton as Jimmie’s FBI friend, John Connolly. His headshot photographed against six-inch -flowered, kitchen wallpaper highlights his personal allegiances. His wife loses. And as that wife, Juliette Nicolson is amazing. Her Marianne is full of depth. I wish the screenplay gave her more time. When Jimmie knocks on her locked bedroom door and creepily puts his hands around her neck. We can feel that touch. We can understand her wish to scream. Her control is lost only in her brimming eyes. Depp, Nicolson, and Edgerton all give Oscar-worthy performances. It is in this threatening scene where “Whitey’s” evil is best portrayed. Marianne knows Jimmie has changed her husband. That “southie -kid” loyalty never leaves John Connolly. He goes to prison for forty years without testifying against his psychopathic childhood friend.

Johnny Depp’s transformation as James “Whitey” Bulger, leader of The Winter Hill Gang is make-up-award worthy,too. The honed nose,the blue eyes and the balding-scalp-overlay give a mesmerizing effect. Only in one scene did I catch a glimpse of a rubber-neckline give away. Depp’s acting is a stunner,yet the viewers get no real insight into this crime boss who kills with bare-handed abandon in broad daylight,once in front of a full recess playground. Depp’s voice is raspy,deep, and cool. When he instructs his five -year -old son, it is to say,” It is not what you do, but where and when. If nobody sees it, it didn’t happen.”

This is the man who becomes a top echelon FBI informant,code named “Charlie”. Jimmie,with friend Connolly’s aid, is in alliance with the Feds to bring down the Angiulo Brothers,a Mafia family. This is the “Devil’s Deal”: the FBI allows Whitey Bulger ,small time gangster, to become a crime kingpin to “bring down the Italians”. With two sympathetic notes shown after his son’s Reye Syndrome death and in his gin rummy card game with his mother, Bulger goes on to become the crime lord of Boston and Miami rackets. His admonition to “never hand me a bag full of money in public. I’ll whack anyone, anywhere” is proven true in ghastly car -window -blood splatter over and over again. Bulger uses some of his filthy lucre to buy weapons for the IRA. Our FBI’s “professional criminal consultant” lives by getting and giving loyalty to his friends until they do something he considers stupid.

One telling scene has Jimmie parading his power as “cock of the walk”.He asks for the recipe of a particularly pleasing steak marinade; and though it is described as a secret family recipe, it  is given to him anyway. Bulger chides that “just saying can get you buried real fucking quick”.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Billy Bulger, Jimmie’s brother and U.S. Senator, and former Chancellor of The University of Massachusetts. Kevin Bacon is John Connolly’s (Joel Edgerton) FBI boss. Again,the cast of “Black Mass” could not have been better. The movie should have been. It seems incongruous that a man known for extortion,racketeering and murder, a man who utters dictates of “pull out his fucking teeth and bury him next to the whore” would be last filmed in a candlelit church with no more insight into his mind.