Review: ‘Elvis’ (2022), starring Austin Butler and Tom Hanks

June 22, 2022

by Carla Hay

Austin Butler in “Elvis” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Elvis” (2022)

Directed by Baz Luhrmann

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1946 to 1977, in various parts of the United States and briefly in Germany, the dramatic film “Elvis” features a predominantly white group of people (with some African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy in this biopic of superstar entertainer Elvis Presley.

Culture Clash: Presley had many personal battles in his life, including those related to racial segregation, his drug addiction, his doomed marriage to Priscilla Presley and his troubled relationship with manager Colonel Tom Parker. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of Elvis Presley fans, “Elvis” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Baz Luhrmann and music biopics that go big on spectacle-like filmmaking.

Austin Butler, Helen Thomson, Tom Hanks and Richard Roxburgh in “Elvis” (Photo by Hugh Stewart/Warner Bros. Pictures)

The vibrant biopic “Elvis” continues filmmaker Baz Luhrmann’s pattern of making a protagonist’s life story look like a manic-energy carnival. The musical numbers are fantastic, but viewers should expect a very glossy version of Elvis Presley’s life. Luhrmann directed and co-wrote “Elvis,” and he is one of the movie’s producers. People who are familiar with Luhrmann’s previous movies (including 2001’s “Moulin Rouge!” and 2013’s “The Great Gatsby”) will already know that he isn’t a filmmaker known for being miniminalist or showing restraint.

Luhrmann’s “Elvis,” just like Elvis Presley, is a mass of contradictions but can be counted on to deliver spectacular performances on stage. Even with a total running time of 159 minutes, “Elvis” leaves out or fast-forwards through many important aspects of Presley’s life. But other parts of the movie drag with repetition and linger too long in scenes where the story should have already moved on to something else. Luhrmann co-wrote the “Elvis” screenplay with Sam Bromell, Craig Pearce and Jeremy Doner. The movie was filmed in Luhrmann’s native Australia.

At times, this “Elvis” movie looks like a lengthy music video, with enough quick cuts to give some viewers the cinematic version of whiplash. Other times, “Elvis” attempts to get into the more serious and emotionally complex areas of Presley’s life before zipping off into one of several whirling-dervish montages that fill up this movie. It’s a change of pace and tone that might be off-putting to some viewers who are looking for a more conventional way of telling the story.

For example, the courtship and marriage of Elvis and Priscilla Beaulieu Presley (played by Olivia DeJonge) are very rushed into the story and aren’t given a lot of depth. The movie leaves out the fact that in real life, when Elvis began dating Priscilla in 1959, she was 14 and he was 24. They met when he was drafted into the U.S. Army and stationed in Germany, where Priscilla’s U.S. Air Force stepfather was also stationed at the time.

In real life, Elvis also convinced Priscilla’s parents to let her move in with him when she was still an underage teen. It’s probably not a coincidence that Priscilla is portrayed by an actress who never looks underage. That’s because bringing up possible stautory rape in connection to Elvis would ruin the movie’s intention to make him look like a superstar who was exploited by a greedy and corrupt manager.

Sometimes, the actors give performances that look like impersonations, while in other scenes, the actors seem to truly embody their characters. This dictonomy is especially true for Austin Butler (who portrays the adult Elvis Presley) and Tom Hanks (who plays manager Colonel Tom Parker), whose love/hate business partnership is the movie’s central conflict. Their best scenes are those where they look the most natural and don’t try to overdo the “larger than life” aspects of their respective characters’ personalities.

Butler’s performance is much better in the scenes depicting Elvis in the last 10 years of his life, when Elvis’ health was on a steady decline due to his drug addiction. (Elvis died of a heart attack in 1977, at the age of 42.) In the scenes of Elvis’ adult years before he became famous and during his fame from the mid-1950s to mid-1960s, Butler just looks like he’s doing a competent Elvis impersonation. The movie starts to improve considerably when Butler shows more emotional depth as the sweaty, “hooked on drugs” version of Elvis, because it’s a portrayal of man who’s on a downward spiral but still desperately trying to stay on top.

Elvis’ controlling manager Parker, whose real name was Andreas Cornelis (Dries) van Kuijk, was born in the Netherlands, but he pretended for years that he was born and raised in the United States. In real life, Parker (who died in 1997, at the age of 87) hid his true identity and undocumented immigrant status. This deception is in the movie, but as a plot twist reveal that will not surprise anyone who knows about Parker, or anyone who notices Hanks’ very over-the-top European accent in the movie. There are parts of the movie where Hanks’ prosthetic makeup and his Dutch-like accent are very distracting. Hanks’ accent also sometimes sounds German and sometimes sounds like a Western European trying to sound American.

In real life, when Parker was Elvis’ manager, Parker did not have a heavy European accent, as portrayed in this movie. Parker had a very believable American accent in real life. How else would he have been able to fool so many people into thinking that he was a born-and-raised American if he had a European accent? This quasi-European accent is one of the characteristics of Parker that this “Elvis” movie gets wrong.

Because so much of Elvis’ life has already been dissected and depicted in many other ways (including Elvis impersonators becoming both a cottage industry and the butt of a lot of jokes), Luhrmann’s “Elvis” at least takes a unique approach of telling this story with narration from Parker. The movie’s opening scene shows Parker collapsing from a heart attack and taken to a hospital. During this narration, Parker repeatedly says versions of this statement: “Without me, there would be no Elvis Presley. And yet, there are some who would make me the villain of this here story.”

Elvis’ childhood gets a comic-book panel treatment (literally) in this “Elvis” movie, as the movie uses comic book panels and comic-book-type illustrations to show chapter transitions in Elvis’ youth. Born on January 8, 1935, in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis Aaron Presley is portrayed as someone who was influenced from an early age by music, particularly R&B and gospel music. Elvis had a twin brother named Jessie Garon Presley, who was stillborn. The film briefly mentions the death of Elvis’ twin brother, but the movie does not explore (as other biographies have done) how Elvis was haunted by this death.

Elvis was famously a “mama’s boy” who worshipped his mother Gladys (played by Helen Thomson), who was a strong-willed and dominant force in his life. Elvis’ father Vernon (played by Richard Roxburgh) is portrayed as someone who was often overshadowed by Gladys in Elvis’ eyes. However, Vernon still had a huge influence on Elvis, especially after Parker decided that Vernon should be Elvis’ business manager.

It was a ultimately not a good decision, considering that Vernon had trouble keeping a steady job up until that point, Vernon had no experience as a successful businessperson, and Elvis experienced major financial problems in the years leading up to his death. It also didn’t help that Parker was a gambling addict. The movie portrays Parker’s gambling addiction as one of the reasons why he was so money-hungry and willing to do unscrupulous things to get access to Elvis’ fortune.

When Elvis was 13 years old, he and his family relocated to Memphis, Tennessee, the city that is most closely associated with Elvis’ childhood and young adulthood. (Chaydon Jay has the role of the adolescent Elvis in the movie.) Vernon got into trouble with the law in 1938, when he was imprisoned for eight months for check forgery. As a result of these legal problems, the family lost their home and had to move to a lower-income area that was populated by mostly African Americans.

The movie makes it look like Elvis was the only white kid in his area who was allowed or interested in going to the African American religious church revivals that were held in tents, where he would watch the passionate gospel performances in awe. Elvis was also a fan of R&B music at a time when it was concered “race music” that was only supposed to be performed and enjoyed by black people. Sometimes, Elvis would get teased or harassed for liking this music, but his decision to perform his version of this music ultimately set him on the road to stardom. Elvis was also a fan of country music, which he incorporated into many of his songs.

While an underage Elvis was sneaking into church revivals in tents, the movie shows Parker spending a lot of his time in another type of event that uses tents: carnivals. Parker is portrayed in flashback scenes as a carnival huckster skilled at selling and at coming up with con games. It’s a skill set that Parker brought with him when he decided to go into the music business. The movie takes a little too much time with scenes of Parker managing country artists such as Hank Snow (played by David Wenham) and his son Jimmie Rodgers Snow (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee), a musician who would eventually befriend Elvis.

Later, when Elvis and Parker meet in person, the movie stylishly stages this meeting in a carnival hall of mirrors. It’s an example of how this “Elvis” movie has fantastical elements. In real life, the first time Elvis met Parker was probably in a much more non-descript setting. Catherine Martin (Luhrmann’s wife and filmmaking partner) is a producer of “Elvis” and the leader of the movie’s top-notch costume design and production design.

Elvis’ imitation of African American R&B and early rock and roll (rock pioneers Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino were big influences on Elvis) could be considered cultural appropriation or an extreme form of flattery, depending on your perspective. But what most people can agree on is that Elvis’ performance of this music is what caught the attention of Sun Records founder Sam Phillips, who is widely considered the person who gave Elvis his first big music break.

Elvis’ early recordings on Sun Records were then brought to the attention of Parker, who is portrayed as someone who couldn’t believe that the singer on the recordings was white, not black. And when Parker sees Elvis perform for the first time, Parker says in a narration voiceover what his first impression of Elvis was: “Greasy hair, girlie makeup. I cannot overstate how strange he looked.”

But what really convinced Parker to want to represent Elvis as his personal manager was seeing the audience reaction (especially from females) that Elvis got when Elvis performed on stage and thrust, shook and swiveled his hips and legs in a sexually suggestive manner. The movie makes a point of showing how these stage moves had a primal effect on women and teenage girls in the audience, as Elvis often got them into a frenzy. Expect to see several scenes of Elvis being branded as “lewd and lascivious” for these stage moves in various scenarios, with the controversy fueling his popularity.

One of the odd things about this “Elvis” movie is that there’s a scene where Elvis is on stage early in his career and his band members are the ones to tell him to wiggle his hips more. If you believe this scenario, Elvis wasn’t the one to come up with these sex symbol moves. He had to be talked into it by his band members. Parker says in his ever-present voiceover narration when commenting on women’s lusty reactions to Elvis: “He was a taste of forbidden fruit.”

The movie correctly shows that it was Parker who convinced Elvis to ditch Sun Records for a more lucrative offer from RCA Records, which had the type of national distribution and radio clout that Sun Records did not. Sun Records released some singles from Elvis in 1954 (including his first single “That’s All Right”), but they weren’t hits. Elvis’ first RCA Records single was 1955’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” which was a smash hit and became his first No. 1 single.

In a flashback voiceover, Parker brags about how he was the first person to create a merchandising bonanza around a pop star. In a very over-the-top scene, Parker shows off a huge stockpile of Elvis-branded merchandise that is cluttered all over a room in a Presley family home. It looks like an Elvis product hoarder decorated the room.

As Elvis became more famous and was spending more time away from home, it started to bother Gladys. The movie has a scene that’s a little on the Oedipal creepy side, where Gladys tells Elvis that she’s worried about the way that his female fans look at him. Gladys acts more like a jealous girlfriend than a mother. And then, Elvis tells his mother, “You’re my girl.”

Elvis’ experiences with groupies are very toned-down in the movie, which has no explicit sex scenes or even explicit sex talk. Priscilla is sidelined for most of the movie. After Priscilla and Elvis get married in 1967, she’s just shown as someone who’s part of his entourage and becomes an increasingly unhappy bystander when he kisses and flirts with female fans at concerts.

For a while, Elvis and Priscilla lived in Los Angeles, but Elvis’ world-famous Graceland estate in Memphis was always considered to be his main home. After Elvis’ death, Elvis Presley Enterprises (which approved this movie) turned Graceland into a tourist attraction. The movie shows some of Elvis’ indulgences, including his lavish spending habits and his tendency to carry around a lot of guns. As expected, there’s a scene of a drug-addled Elvis destroying a TV set by shooting it up with a gun—something that he was known to do in real life from time to time.

Lisa Marie Presley (Elvis and Priscilla’s daughter, who was born in 1968) appears briefly in a few scenes. Priscilla’s breakup scene with Elvis is predictably melodramatic. She screams at him that she’s leaving him not because of his infidelities but because of his addiction to pills. Priscilla throws pills at Elvis before walking out the door. Priscilla and Elvis divorced in 1973, but their legal battles are never shown in the movie. Near the end of the film, there’s a tearjerking scene that’s the final word on their ill-fated romance.

Elvis’ movie star career is rushed through in a series of scenes that culminate with the media reporting that Elvis was in talks to be Barbra Streisand’s co-star in a 1976 remake of “A Star Is Born,” in which he would be playing a drug-addicted, has-been rock star. A radio announcer is heard commenting in a voiceover that Elvis wouldn’t have to do much acting for this role. Elvis, who had been trying with no success to become a serious dramatic actor, never did this remake of “A Star Is Born.” Kris Kristofferson ended up in the role.

With his movie career going nowhere, Elvis continues as a Las Vegas attraction at the International Hotel (which is now the Las Vegas Hilton) and as an artist doing several successful U.S. tours. Elvis wants to tour outside the U.S., but Parker keeps coming up with excuses for Elvis not to do these international tours. When the truth is exposed about why Parker is holding back on working outside the U.S., it leads to a turning point in the relationship between Elvis and Parker.

One of the more curious aspects of “Elvis” is that it doesn’t spend a lot of time showing Elvis in the recording studio. He was not a songwriter for almost all of his hits (an exception was his co-songwriting credit for “Heartbreak Hotel”), but this biopic doesn’t provide much insight into how he worked in a recording studio setting. And this “Elvis” movie doesn’t have any significant scenes of actors portraying the major songwriters (including Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller) who were responsible for writing Elvis’ biggest hits.

However, the movie has several scenes acknowledging the artists who inspired Elvis. Big Mama Thornton (played by Shonka Dukureh) is seen belting out “Hound Dog,” a song that was famously covered by Elvis. Little Richard (played by Alton Mason) appears briefly in a performance clip. During a media event, Elvis points to Fats Domino and says that Domino is the real King of Rock and Roll.

Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup (played by Gary Clark Jr.), Sister Rosetta Tharpe (played by Yola) and Mahalia Jackson (played by Cle Morgan) have small roles in the movie. B.B. King (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and Elvis became mutual admirers of each other, and the movie briefly shows that friendship. If these influential African American artists are shown performing in the movie, it’s for a very limited amount of screen time.

The movie shows glimpses of Elvis being a concerned citizen who wanted to get involved in the civil rights movement, but he was ordered by Parker never to talk about politics in public. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy (both in 1968) and the civil unrest in the U.S. in the late 1960s are all portrayed as media news backdrops to Elvis’ personal problems, while Parker gripes about how America is going downhill because of the hippie counterculture movement. Just like many other Elvis biographies, the movie depicts Elvis as becoming more isolated the older he got and the deeper he got into drug addiction.

Elvis’ entourage, which was famously called the Memphis Mafia, is portrayed as not much more than being a bunch of “yes men” in the movie. The one who gets the most screen time is Jerry Schiller (played by Luke Bracey), who’s mostly seen acting like a personal assistant/security employee. A few of the other Memphis Mafia members portrayed in the movie are Steve Binder (played by Dacre Montgomery), Bones Howe (played by Gareth Davies) and Scotty Moore (played by Xavier Samuel), who don’t do or say anything noteworthy.

Because Elvis was a drug addict, the movie shows that he had his own Dr. Feelgood on the payroll to give injections and pills of whatever drugs were requested. In the movie, this enabling doctor is called Dr. Nick (played by Tony Nixon), and he’s based on the real-life Dr. George Nichopoulos, whose nickname was Dr. Nick. Just like in the movie, the real-life Dr. Nick had a reputation for being a drug supplier to many celebrities, including Elvis. The movie shows that Elvis was mostly addicted to amphetamines and opioids.

A harrowing scene in the movie shows Elvis collapsing in a hallway shortly before he’s scheduled to do a concert. Members of his entourage frantically try to revive him, but to no avail. The decision must be made to take Elvis to a hospital, or summon Dr. Nick to give Elvis an injection so that Elvis can do the show. You can easily guess what decision was made in a world where people live by the rule “The show must go on.” The movie makes a point of implying that this scenario happened too many times behind the scenes, and it led to Elvis’ downward spiral.

None of this is really shocking because there have already been so many exposés of Elvis’ private life, there’s really almost no new information to uncover. Elvis’ bizarre 1970 visit with then-U.S. president Richard Nixon is neither mentioned nor shown in this movie, probably because there was an entire movie made about it: director Liza Johnson’s 2016 comedy/drama “Elvis & Nixon,” starring Michael Shannon as Elvis and Kevin Spacey as Nixon. Luhrmann’s “Elvis” movie isn’t concerned about being a celebrity “tell all” biopic as much as it is concerned about presenting Elvis’ life in ways that are served up like it’s on a conveyor belt and in other ways like it’s part of a splashy musical.

In other words, “Elvis” is a very mixed bag, but it shines the best and brightest in the area that matters the most: showing Elvis as a music artist. The movie has performances of Elvis hits such as “Blue Suede Shoes,” “Hound Dog,” “Jailhouse Rock,” “That’s All Right,” “Are You Lonesome Tonight?,” “Suspicious Minds” and “Heartbreak Hotel.” Butler does very good renditions of some these classics, with standout show-stoppers depicting Elvis’ 1968 “comeback” TV special (“Elvis” on NBC) and some of his performances in Las Vegas.

The movie’s soundtrack also has some contemporary, hip-hop-infused remakes of classic songs, such as Doja Cat’s version of “Vegas” and Swae Lee and Diplo’s version of Crudup’s “Tupelo Shuffle,” a song that Elvis also recorded. Eminem’s original song “The King and I”(featuring CeeLo Green) is also part of the movie’s soundtrack. These songs don’t sound completely out of place in the movie, but the contemporary music does take viewers out of the 1950s to 1970s, the decades when Elvis made his music. However, “Elvis” is definitely a crowd pleaser in being a feast of Elvis music, as it should be.

“Suspicious Minds” is the most prominently used Elvis song in the movie. Even though the lyrics are about lovers who’ve lost trust in each other, “Suspicious Minds” could also be a theme song about the growing mistrust in the deteriorating relationship between Elvis and Parker. How much did Parker really play a role in causing Elvis’ downfall? The movie leaves it up to viewers to decide. Even with all of Elvis’ pitfalls and self-destructive excesses, “Elvis” has a clear message that any problems he had in his life were always surpassed by his love of performing and connecting with his fans.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “Elvis” in U.S. cinemas on June 24, 2022. The movie was released in other countries on June 22, 2022.

Review: ‘The Power of the Dog,’ starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee

December 11, 2021

by Carla Hay

Kodi Smit-McPhee and Benedict Cumberbatch in “The Power of the Dog” (Photo by Kirsty Griffin/Netflix)

“The Power of the Dog”

Directed by Jane Campion

Culture Representation: Taking place in Montana in 1925, the dramatic film “The Power of the Dog” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A bullying rancher, who is secretly gay and who comes from a wealthy family, tries to make life miserable for his younger brother’s new wife and her young adult son from a previous marriage. 

Culture Audience: “The Power of the Dog” will appeal primarily to fans of star Benedict Cumberbatch, filmmaker Jane Campion and well-made Westerns where the challenges are more psychological than physical.

Jesse Plemons and Kirsten Dunst in “The Power of the Dog” (Photo by Kirsty Griffin/Netflix)

“The Power of the Dog” gives an unflinching and riveting portrait of toxic masculinity, homophobia and family tensions. Even though the movie is set in 1925 Montana, the themes are universal and timeless. Written and directed by Jane Campion (who adapted the movie from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name), “The Power of the Dog” is a masterfully made film on every level. Many parts of the movie are not easy to watch, but unless you have a heart of stone or only want to watch mindless junk movies, it’s nearly impossible not to be affected in some way after seeing “The Power of the Dog.”

The story of “The Power of the Dog” essentially centers on four people, who end up being caught up in a maelstrom of mistrust and hard feelings. There are varying degrees of love and fear that drive the motives behind these characters’ actions and words. The four characters who are the focus of the story are:

  • Phil Burbank (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), the aggressive alpha male rancher, who seems ultra-skilled at almost everything except staying in a healthy and loving relationship.
  • George Burbank (played by Jesse Plemons), Phil’s mild-mannered younger brother, who is the opposite of Phil in almost every way.
  • Rose Gordon (played by Kirsten Dunst), the widow restaurateur who becomes of one the targets of Phil’s scorn, especially after Rose marries George.
  • Peter Gordon (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee), the sensitive, young adult son from Rose’s first marriage, who also gets Phil’s wrath because Peter is unapologetically effeminate.

Many other characters come and go in “The Power of the Dog,” but the most interesting and best parts of the movie are about the four main characters. Campion (who is also one of the movie’s producers) wisely pared down the “Power of the Dog” novel by choosing the parts that have the most cinematic impact. If everything in the book had been adapted to the screen, the “The Power of the Dog” would’ve been a miniseries, not a feature-length movie.

Still, the deliberately slow pacing in the beginning of the movie might be a bit of a turnoff to people with short attention spans. The first third of the movie takes place before Rose and George get married. She’s the sole owner/manager of a small eatery called the Red Mill restaurant, which is her only source of income since her first husband, Dr. John Gordon, passed away. Dr. Gordon was a loving husband and father, by all accounts. Peter helps out at the restaurant as a waiter/busboy.

Phil (who is in his mid-40s) and George (who’s in his early-to-mid 30s) come from a wealthy rancher family and live together on the family’s expansive ranch property in Montana. (“The Power of the Dog” was actually filmed in New Zealand.) Their parents are both deceased. Phil (a never-married bachelor) is in charge of the ranch, where he shows off his cowboy skills to his underlings. Phil oversees the ranch’s day-to-day manual operations, while the better-educated George handles the ranch’s business affairs. But if push came to shove, everyone knows that Phil is really the boss of the ranch.

Phil isn’t just talented at ranch responsibilities. He also plays the banjo, which he learned how to play with ease and speed beyond what the average person would be able to do. Later in the movie, Phil uses his banjo playing as a weapon to emotionally torment Rose. Because Phil is so multi-talented and has a charismatic side (he’s well-known for enrapturing people with his storytelling), he gets away with a lot of appalling things with people who seem to both admire and fear him.

Rose and Peter (who’s in his early 20s) are still grieving over the loss of Dr. Gordon, but they do what they can to survive in an often-harsh world. They experience some of this harshness when Phil and his rancher cronies come into the restaurant and put their toxic masculinity on full display. Phil is a bully who likes to taunt and insult people he thinks are vulnerable, just so he can feel superior to them.

Phil makes obnoxious and cruel comments to Rose and Peter while he’s a customer at the restaurant. Phil’s rancher buddies just laugh and do nothing to stop Phil. These weak-willed enablers often join in on Phil’s bullying. One day, at the restaurant, Phil’s bad behavior becomes potentially dangerous, when he deliberately sets fire to a bouquet of paper flowers that’s on display on the restaurant table. The fire doesn’t spread to cause any significant damage. However, this arson is the first sign that Phil has destructive tendencies.

During this restaurant meal, Phil leads a group toast to his deceased best friend Bronco Henry, who died in 1904 at the age of 50. Bronco Henry (who is not seen in flashbacks) is described as a mentor to Phil. As time goes on, there’s a pivotal scene in the movie that reveals that Bronco Henry was more than a best friend/mentor to Phil. It’s the scene that reveals that Phil is gay and in the closet about his true sexuality. It’s left open to intepretation if Phil and Bronco Henry had a sexual relationship, but it’s clear from this scene that Phil was in love with Bronco Henry.

Until that scene happens, the movie drops big hints that Phil’s homophobia is masking his own self-hatred about being gay. The biggest indication is in how Phil zeroes in on Peter for Phil’s worst bullying. Peter, who is shy and very intelligent, is contemplating going to medical school. He has no interest in a job that would require athletic prowess. Therefore, Phil delights in calling Peter a “sissy” and other derogatory names so that Phil can let it be known to everyone that he thinks Peter is probably gay.

Peter’s sexuality is not identified or defined in “The Power of the Dog,” because Peter doesn’t state what his sexuality is, and he doesn’t show interest in dating anyone at this point in his life. Peter is definitely a “mama’s boy” though, and his mother is very protective of him. Having an annoying and homophobic customer who comes into the restaurant is one thing. Having him become part of Peter’s family is another.

And so, it’s with growing dread that Peter (who does voiceover narration in the movie) notices that Phil’s younger brother George has taken a romantic interest in Peter’s lonely mother Rose. George is very smitten with Rose. The feeling isn’t mutual, but she likes George enough to entertain his amorous attention.

There’s an ulterior motive for Rose to consider marrying George: She needs money to pay for Peter’s medical school fees. Her restaurant is also struggling, and she wouldn’t have to work outside the home anymore if she married this wealthy rancher. Rose appreciates that George is kind to her, but she doesn’t have the same romantic passion for him that he does for her. She’s also living in an era when a woman’s financial stability depends largely on what kind of man she marries.

Peter isn’t the only one who doesn’t really want Rose to marry George. Phil tries to discourage George from marrying Rose. During a private conversation between the two brothers, Phil reminds George that they’ve had fun together when they visit prostitutes. Phil also warns George about not being seduced into paying the “nancy boy’s” medical school fees. George is undeterred in his pursuit of Rose because he’s truly in love with her.

Under these circumstances, it doesn’t take Rose long to decide she’s going to marry George. Rose and George have a whirlwind courtship, they get married, and she and Peter move to the Burbank family ranch. It’s during this life transition that things start to get ugly for Rose and Peter. George is often away on business, so he’s at first oblivious to what goes on at the ranch when he’s not there. And he’s sometimes clueless about the trouble that’s brewing, even when he’s at the ranch.

Because of George’s trusting nature, he lives life in an open and transparent way. By contrast, Phil is very secretive and highly manipulative. Phil sees life almost like a chess game where he always has to end up as the winner. George tends to dismiss the bad things that he hears about Phil, partly because Phil is his only sibling (and closest living relative) and partly because George likes to think that all people are essentially good.

Rose is a talented piano player, but Phil is the type of egomaniac who can’t stand the thought of anyone outshining him in any talent, especially in his own home. And so, one of the more fascinating aspects of the movie plays out, when Phil engages in psychological warfare with Rose, by using the music he plays on the banjo, how he plays it, and when he plays it. The marriage of Rose and George also threatens the closeness that Phil and George once had but is now changed because most of George’s attention is now on Rose, not Phil.

You also don’t have to be a psychiatrist to see that Phil is also jealous of George because George has found love and is with a spouse who makes him happy. It’s something that Phil knows he can never experience as a gay man, when homosexuality is forbidden in every way in this 1925 society. Over time, Rose starts to care deeply for George, and that makes Phil even more jealous.

A warning to viewers who are sensitive about seeing animal abuse depicted in movies: There’s a shocking and disturbing scene where Phil takes out his anger by brutally and repeatedly punching a horse. This act of animal cruelty is not entirely shown on camera, but the sound effects are sickening. And there are other scenes of horses being mistreated when Phil and his ranch workers use rough methods to “break” a horse in training. (There’s a disclaimer in the movie’s end credits that confirms that no animals were harmed in the making of this movie.)

People who abuse animals usually abuse other people too. Needless to say, Phil tries to make Peter’s life a living hell at the ranch. And when Peter temporarily goes away to attend medical school, Rose gets the brunt of Phil’s animosity. While on a break from medical school, Peter comes back to the ranch to visit. Rose is shocked and fearful when Phil suddenly starts treating Peter like a protégé.

Even though Phil has stopped overtly bullying Peter, Rose is suspicious that Phil’s sudden transformation into being a “nice mentor” is all an act, and that Phil is setting up Peter for something sinister. Rose confides in George about her suspicions, but George doesn’t really know what to think. Peter seems happy and grateful that Phil is no longer bullying him. The movie delivers a knockout punch to audiences in showing how all of this turmoil is resolved.

All of the cast members give terrific performances, but the biggest standouts are Cumberbatch, Dunst and Smit-McPhee. Dunst and Plemons are a couple in real life, and they have an easy chemistry together. Where things really get really shaken with unease is in how Phil, Rose and Peter navigate their relationships with each other in this very uncomfortable blended family situation.

Rose and Phil predictably don’t get along with each other. But what Dunst portrays so well is being emtionally knocked-off balance when she sees that Phil and Peter, who could easily be enemies, are now starting to become close to each other and could possibly become friends. Phil knows that Peter is the person whom Rose loves the most, so what better way to disturb Rose than to gain the loyalty and trust of Peter?

It’s easy to see why Rose would feel emotionally betrayed by Peter too. Peter is starting to assert his independence, so he seems to want to ignore his mother’s increasing apprehension that Phil does not have good intentions for Peter. The tension is ramped up even more in scenes where Peter and Phil spend time alone together. As the hard-to-read Peter, Smit-McPhee probably has the most diffcult character to play because Peter doesn’t express his emotions as easily as the other main characters.

Cumberbatch gives one of the best performances of his career as the ruthless and complicated Phil. This character is by no means an “anti-hero”—he’s a villain, through and through. But the movie can inspire thoughtful discussions over how much homophobia plays a role in Phil’s deep-seated hatred and bitterness. If Phil had been able to live his life openly as a gay man, would he still be a jerk? That question is definitely open to debate.

It’s one of the many aspects of Campion’s version of “The Power of the Dog” that make it intriguing cinematic art. The movie does not offer easy answers and weaves a rich-enough tapestry in the story that’s open to interpretation. The movie’s cinematography, production design and musical score enhance the film’s ability to be both hypnotic and suspenseful. It’s easy to see why Campion won the Best Director prize at the 2021 Venice International Film Festival, where “The Power of the Dog” had its world premiere. The movie also screened at other prestigious film festivals in 2021, such as the Toronto International Film Festival and the New York Film Festival.

“The Power of the Dog” gets its title from Psalm 22:20 in the Bible: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.” In the movie, a mountain range can be seen from the ranch, and the characters talk about how the mountain has a specific rock formation that resembles a dog, if looked at in a certain way. Phil represents any toxic force that threatens to ruin someone’s life. And the powerful message of the movie is that you can either fear this toxicity and look away, or you can look at it directly and confront it head-on.

Netflix released “The Power of the Dog” in select U.S. cinemas on November 17, 2021, and on Netflix on December 1, 2021.

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