When the nominations for the 94th Academy Awards were announced last week, the inclusion of “Drive My Car” among the 10 Best Picture nominees caused some consternation among the populists. How could an avant-garde, three-hour Japanese film about the staging of a Chekhov play make it into the Best Picture race? I wasn’t surprised; after a concerted effort by the Academy to become younger, more female, more racially-diverse, and more international, the Academy’s selections have become increasingly esoteric, so “Drive My Car” slipping into the nominations isn’t the surprise it would have been 20 years ago.
“The Power of the Dog” being most likely to win, on the other hand, seems genuinely shocking. The Netflix film from Jane Campion (already an Oscar-winner for “The Piano”) is every bit as avant-garde as “Drive My Car.” Maybe moreso. Technically, it’s a Western, which makes it familiar to an institution that has awarded “Dances with Wolves” and “Unforgiven.” Unlike comedy or horror, the Western is considered a serious genre by the Academy. But there’s little in Campion’s vision that feels connected to those films, or really any Westerns from the past. It’s a mysterious tale of hurt people who hurt people, of Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons), whose quiet life on their ranch is upended when George marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a local widow. Rose and her eccentric son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) come to live with the Burbanks, which enrages Phil and leads to strange and tragic circumstances.
It may sound simple enough, but every one of Campion’s choices “The Power of the Dog” subverts the conventions of the genre, challenging its fans and alienating less bold viewers. In stark contrast to the typically sweeping strings of a Western score, the music by Johnny Greenwood is radically dissonant, with its atonal melodies plucked out on violins and pianos. It’s eerie and uncomfortable, much like the film’s unusual setting. Campion filmed in her native New Zealand, capturing the lush mountain ranges and smooth basins of her homeland. It’s objectively beautiful, but it doesn’t look the way America looks. This literal uncanny valley contributes to a sense of unease, of being free and constrained at once.
Even more challenging is the sense of artificiality with which Campeon imbues the film. Look at the Burbanks’ enormous house. Built in an Eastern style and set down in an empty valley, it feels like the monolith in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” an artifact from another land. Inside, its rooms are so dark and spacious that the people hardly register. It’s like a tomb. This sense of alienation extends to the film’s performances, especially those of Smit-McPhee and Cumberbatch, who in differing ways cultivate characters designed to repel others. Cumberbatch, an eminently charismatic ctor, makes it particularly hard for the viewer to connect. His real emotions are buried too deep to be seen. When he yells, it feels like a put-on, and when he sits quietly, he seems restless. Every moment is strained.
Every one of these choices supports Campion’s vision, and while “The Power of the Dog” didn’t work for me as well as it has for others, it’s certainly not from thoughtlessness or lack of craft.. It’s a profoundly uncomfortable film–right up to its twist ending, which throws us off balance one more time–but that’s how you shake up a genre that has existed in broadly the same terms for over a century. It’s an achievement worth recognizing, but it’s also hard to ignore how different “The Power of the Dog” is from the gently reaffirming films like “The English Patient,” “The Artist,” or, yes, “Dances with Wolves” that have dominated Best Picture in the past. It’s the latest in an increasingly long train of evidence that the Academy has changed, and it doesn’t care whether you like it.