Before writing this film review I sat down and read George Sanders’ short story “Escape from Spiderhead,” published by The New Yorker in 2010 and available to be read here. It would probably a better use of your time than watching the Netflix movie adaptation, and it surely won’t take 90 minutes, though that’s an assumption on my part. The story follows Jeff (Miles Teller), a prisoner who is undergoing experimental drug trials for a lighter sentence. Chris Hemsworth is miscast as the sunny, smarmy head of the drug trials, mostly featuring a drug that induces extreme feelings of desire and love and attachment. The movie is simply too predictable once you acknowledge the plot elements of secret drug trials and tests of loyalty and emotions. You’ll likely foresee the movie’s big reveals far before the screenplay by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (Deadpool, 6 Underground) reaches the obvious ploys for twists to turn Sanders’ more introspective, nuanced, and psychological story into a rah-rah formula sci-fi action movie. The first act is relatively promising and close to its source material, but the intriguing and philosophical questions about human connections, guilt, compliance, free will, and corporate hegemony are brushed aside for a silly series of action scenes, brawls, and big escapes. Mostly, I found Spiderhead to be dull because it was too predictable and because it didn’t have much more to say than any over-extended Black Mirror episode. It’s a passable sci-fi allegory that’s light on allegory and settles for being another anesthetizing streaming byproduct.
Nate’s Grade: C
At this point, every viewer turning into 365 Days: This Day is doing so for very specific reasons: either for an erotic charge or morbid curiosity to see how bad this bad franchise can sink. The original film was a pandemic breakout for Netflix in 2020, reigning supreme as their number one movie for over a month internationally. It’s based on Polish writer Barbara Bialowas’ trilogy of best-selling erotic novels, clearly inspired from the successful Fifty Shades of Grey series, itself inspired from the Twilight series, the gift that keeps on giving. The first 365 Days got its name from its lead character being held captive by a mafia scion who just knew that this woman would fall in love with him during the time it took the Earth to revolve around the sun. This obviously problematic dynamic led many viewers to detest the movie and its depiction of romance where consent is definitely a concern, not that it would be the first Stockholm syndrome romance in cinema history. 365 Days was a hit explicitly for its explicit and off-putting aggressive sex scenes. Now that we have two sequels prepped, the question remains whether it can still maintain its performance or whether the franchise suffers from diminished returns. Simply put, this sequel isn’t as problematic as the first movie but it’s just as boring and possibly more pointless.
At the end of the first film, Laura (Anna-Maria Sieklucka) survived her tunnel attack but lost her pregnancy. She hasn’t told her jailer/boyfriend/now-husband Massimo (Michael Morrone) about the baby. They wed, they honeymoon, and she begins to resent feeling like a caged woman (oh lady, I thought that was what won you over?) and then she sees Massimo having sex with his ex-girlfriend. She runs away with Nacho (Simone Susinna), a hunky gardener with even more tattoos than Massimo. The new man whisks her away to his beachfront abode and says he only wants to protect her. Masismo is flummoxed trying to find the absentee Laura while a rival crime family schemes to take her out and make a move while Massimo is so torn and distracted.
The first thing you’ll realize very early on in 365 Days: This Day is that there simply is not enough material here to cover almost two hours of running time. This movie is starched beyond the breaking point, and I’m not even making a pun here. There are twenty-two songs credited to this movie, and when a song plays, it’s not like some needle drop that only plays for a few seconds to impart a very specific impression. These songs are like full renditions. That’s why the movie often feels like a collection of music videos and luxury resort commercials. We’ll watch Laura and Massimo frolic on the beach, go horseback riding, and slinking into a bubble bath, all inter-cut together. If you just cut to an R&B group occasionally singing to the camera, it would all feel complete. Sometimes we are mere seconds between songs. Just as one is ending, another begins, and after 40 minutes of this, I began to question whether this was a deliberate creative decision by the filmmakers to limit the number of scenes relying upon the actors speaking. This is a blessing because both Sieklucka and Morrone have difficulty making the pseudo-smoldering dialogue sound right through broken English. There are lines like, “I can’t calm down, I’m Polish!” and Laura referring to her bedroom activities as “a sex.” The literal second line of dialogue is a reference to the bride not wearing any underwear. I think there might be 200 words spoken in this entire movie and a high percentage of them will make you groan or roll your eyes.
I have to devote an entire section to discussing the golf scene. You see, on their luxurious honeymoon, Massimo and Laura spend some time on the links but their kinky foreplay doesn’t take a break. She lays on the green, spreads her legs, and his grips his golf club (do you get it? do you get it?) and then literally putts a white ball across the green and between her open legs (do you get it? do you get it?). As it was happening onscreen, I joked to my girlfriend that it would follow this route, and sure enough, the filmmakers could not resist. It is the comedy high-point of the movie.
It’s not like all these songs are soundtracking sequences of arched backs and heavy thrusting. There are even more music montages for luxury porn than for the soft-core porn. We watch Laura and her friend shop in luxury. We watch them drive in luxury. We watch them walk along the luxurious beach. We watch them jet ski in luxury. We watch them dine in luxury. This is why the majority of the first half of the movie feels like the raw footage from a commercial shoot for a getaway vacation. It’s padding upon padding because the characters of Massimo and Laura are wafer-thin. I was trying to even come up with adjectives to describe either lover, let alone full sentences, and my efforts sounded like a second grader trying to bluff their way through a book report. These characters are so boring that the movie won’t allow them to have any drawn out conversations because then the jig would be up. Even when Massimo confesses to having a brother he never toward Laura, this moment isn’t given extended time for her to interrogate. It’s off to the next shopping or driving montage with sun-dappled cinematography. This is also why the filmmakers have inserted a second couple for us to watch their own blossoming romance, but even this gets resolved so quickly with Massimo’s buddy proposing to Laura’s best pal Olga while they’re all still at the same honeymoon location. They’re supposed to be a distraction and they can’t keep our attention because it’s more characters without defining characteristics beyond their body parts.
The sex is put on hold for half of the movie (with the exception of an occasional frisky dream filling the gap, no pun intended) and 365 Days: This Day becomes a ridiculous soap opera. To fully detail the depths this movie resorts to I’ll need to go into spoilers, if that’s really a concern for you, like this movie is being watched for its storyline. The turning point of the film is when Laura catches Massimo fornicating with his ex BUT WAIT because that wasn’t Massimo but… his coke-addicted, twitchy identical twin brother, Adriano (Morrone is actually far more enjoyable in this dual part). He and the ex are scheming to drive Laura and Massimo apart and then kill them both. They’re being paid by the rival crime family that Nacho belongs to, being the son of the competing mafia boss. This overcooked drama reaches such absurdist heights that it ends on a Mexican standoff with the villains being gunned down, Laura getting shot badly in her abdomen, Massimo finally finding out about his lost child, and a question over where Nacho’s loyalty lies, possibly eliminating Massimo so he can have Laura to himself once and for all. This is like three seasons of soap opera storytelling crammed for the very end of what had otherwise been a ploddingly paced movie lacking needed plot events. Even this sequence is stretched thin by the inane cross-cutting from Laura in danger with Adriano to Massimo and Nacho walking down hallways in excessive slow-motion. I laughed out loud as we jumped from overcooked drama to languidly paced hall walking. The movie has the audacity to end on a cliffhanger, which I suppose also happened with the first movie. If you’re dying to find out what happens to these people in Part Three, I just feel sorry for you.
While the sequel is less problematic over consent than 365 Days, it’s also more boring and tediously forced to draw out the weakest, basest of stories that was never meant to be more than a wish-fulfillment appeal to people’s baser impulses. I don’t want to shame anyone that finds this movie sexy or stimulating. Good for you; attraction is uniquely personal and your found yours. However, this series is making me re-evaluate the Fifty Shades of Grey movies, none of which were good but man at least they were better than this. All of this makes me think the next franchise, inspired by the international streaming success of 365 Days, will be even worse to make me re-evaluate the artistic accomplishment of this very boring, very dumb movie. It is a spiral that will never end and only make us sadder.
Nate’s Grade: D
I don’t know if the superficial fashion company Ambercrombie & Fitch deserves a better expose but a superficial documentary now on Netflix feels like a nostalgia trip that trades in too many glancing, annoying generalities. White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Ambercrombie & Fitch feels like an extended segment from one of those old I Love the 90s specials that used to dominate VH1 where a group of talking heads chatted nostalgically about whatever pop culture bon mot of the past that deserved reverence or being forgotten. I think there could be a story here too. Ambercrombie’s success was built upon two men, both of them gay, creating a brand image basically around the kind of man they found most alluring and attractive: WASPy, muscular, young, and their idea of what it meant to be American (a.k.a. white frat boys). One of those men was closeted and mercurial, and the other was a prominent photographer who was also a predator, but both of these men were responsible for a largely heterosexual cultural landscape accepting their vision and wanting to match their personal preferences. There’s also a story about their wantonly discriminatory hiring practices, keeping minorities in the back or with overnight shifts, wanting to maintain their CEO’s image of people in stores, including hiring people based upon attraction (i.e. thin and white) and not even whether they could be a functional employee. However, director Alison Klayman, no stranger to documentaries that feel rushed and uninformative (Jagged, The Brink, Take Your Pills), would rather speed through an armada of interview talking heads for clipped sound bytes and vague explanations for what made Ambercrombie so popular and then stopped being so (“It was really cool… and then I guess it wasn’t”). The doc completely misses relevant subjects like the online shopping revolution, the decline of malls and mall culture, or anything of actual meaningful cultural contribution beyond the rise of social media. According to the movie, because of social media, more people have voices, I guess just forgetting there was an Internet beforehand. It is strange, by today’s standards, for a large fashion company to be willfully uninterested in its brand being more inclusive. By the end, the documentary even seems to sell a redemption story, so it doesn’t go far enough in its condemnation because that would get in the way of its nostalgia trip and would actually push the interview subjects to confront more of their own actions or inaction. Alas, White Hot is yesterday’s news without any lasting appeal or insight.
Nate’s Grade: C
Horror is likely the most forgiving genre out there for being derivative. Just about every modern horror movie wears its many influences, even the recent trend of elevated horror movies that are trying to say Big Things with equal amounts of arty style and bloodshed. There’s only so many monsters that can chase so many teenagers. Ti West (House of the Devil) is a director I haven’t fully enjoyed, though I would say X is his most accomplished film to date for me. It’s clearly going for a Texas Chainsaw Massacre vibe and docu-drama aesthetic. It’s set in 1979 and we follow a ragtag film crew trying to make “a good dirty movie.” They’ve rented a guest house in the middle of nowhere Texas as their film site because who knows. The octogenarian couple who owns the farm property doesn’t seem to approve of these young folk, and the old lady ends up becoming the slasher killer that mows down the randy young adults. Turns out the old lady has her own urges that the old husband is no longer physically able to satisfy, so she seeks out solace one way or another with the newcomers, whether that be through her sexual satisfaction or through violence. To West’s credit, he has given more attention to his characters. These people are not going to be confused with three-dimensional figures but there’s enough character shading that made me more interested in spending time with them and a little more rueful that most of them will probably die horribly soon enough (Chekhov’s alligator). The slow burn is not wasted time or dawdling, and there are some very well-executed squirm-worthy moments of discomfort. I don’t think X quite works on that elevated horror level of late; it’s mostly a slasher movie with a dollop more complexity and style. The real reason to appreciate X is from the dual performances from actress Mia Goth (Suspiria), the first as a stripper-turned-ingenue that sees pornography as a path of possible self-actualization, but she’s also secretly the killer old lady under piles and piles of makeup. Her wild performances, including scenes where she is facing off against herself, makes the movie far more interesting. Goth goes for broke. I don’t think the X is as fun as it thinks it is, nor is it as thoughtful as it thinks it is, and I don’t know if I care about a prequel that was shot back-to-back that illuminates the killer old lady’s younger life. Is this character really that interesting to warrant her own movie? As a horror movie, it’s disturbing and bloody and surprising in equal measure even as it doesn’t do much with re-configuring the many conventions of its genre.
Netflix’s Choose or Die is one of those spooky horror movies that wants the audience to play its deadly games alongside the unfortunate characters, much like Saw and Would You Rather?, and I typically enjoy these kinds of movies and thinking what options or strategies I would undergo if I was in their place. The structure is pretty straight forward, with a young woman (Iola Evans) and her programmer friend (Asa Butterfield) coming across a cursed old school text-based computer video game that forces its users to make awful choices. The game turns itself on every 24 hours, so there’s a natural delivery of set pieces, each increasing in its personal stakes. There’s the amateur investigation of the history of this 80s video game and uncovering the possible owner who might be benefiting from all this cruelty and sadism. This is a movie built around its set pieces and they start strong. When the protagonist sees the game in action, with a poor diner worker force-feeding herself broken pieces of glass, it’s truly horrifying and the sound design makes it so much worse. The movie isn’t s gory as it could have been and implies a lot more than it shows. The problem with Choose or Die is that there are too many leaps in logic and characters doing silly things just for the sake of the plot. There needs to be an established system of rules or else everything will feel arbitrary, and eventually that is what dooms Choose or Die. Even while we get more of an explanation behind the makers of the game and their occult connections it never feels like we’re better positioned to beat the game. I will say the final act, the Boss Battle, is where the movie cranks things up and gets really intense and darkly humorous. There’s a showdown that involves a key concept of self-harm that plays out in moderately clever, bizarre, and surprising ways, and this splashy, silly finish made me wish the rest of the movie could have lived in this tonal space. I found the overall sound design to be very annoying as it cranked up the volume on lots of glitchy electronic noises that just made me want to turn it off. There are some good ideas here, like the criticisms of being too nostalgic to the past, and of misogynist men believing nobody else is deserving of being the hero of their story, but this is a movie that lives or dies on its killer set pieces, and those just fall flat after its unsettling first level. Watching someone vomit VHS tape is not scary. Watching people move their bodies like they have no control over them will inherently look goofy. Choose or Die wouldn’t be the worst choice of a movie to kill 85 minutes but it’s certainly not much more than the sum of its parts, and even those are overly derivative and been done better by its predecessors.
Choose or Die: C
When is a 90-minute movie egregiously too long? When it’s like Windfall and lacking plot and direction and tone to justify all those minutes. The scaled-down production follows three characters confined to the grounds of one location. Nobody (Jason Segel) is trespassing and living on a fancy estate, complete with orange grove, but when the rich owners, CEO (Jessie Plemons) and Wife (Lily Collins), come home and find the mysterious man, he holds them hostage. From there, you would think the movie might be a comedy of errors, a social satire, and it’s not really. Or maybe you would think it’s a taught thriller with each side trying to manipulate the other, and it’s not really. It’s not really a comedy and not really a thriller, so its laughs are minimal, its thrills are trifling, and it comes down to spending too much time with characters that lack the depth to justify the investment. This movie is strictly kept at parable level, so the characters are meant as ciphers, hence the generic title names. These people are not that interesting to spend this much time with. The movie feels like an anecdote stretched beyond the breaking point and by writers I respect (Seven‘s Andrew Kevin Walker and Charlie McDowell, the writer/director of 2014’s The One I Love). That beguiling little indie movie also revolved around one luxury vacation home and a feuding couple but it had an intelligent sci-fi twist that kept things focused on characters and creative ingenuity. There is no such turn with Windfall. It’s all kept so frustratingly obvious, so the movie just feels plodding and meandering, like we’re simply waiting with the characters for things to end too. The insights are too few. The burst of violence at the end as climax feels unearned and too little too late to raise the stakes. Mostly, Windfall is a hostage drama that doesn’t want to be a hostage drama, a social satire that doesn’t want to be a social satire, a thriller that doesn’t want to be a thriller, and a movie that doesn’t have a consistent tone or direction or entertainment value.
Nate’s Grade: C
Watching the trailer for Netflix’s The Adam Project, I wasn’t too impressed. It felt like a combination of familiar and popular movies like Back to the Future, E.T., and Looper. It seemed like another assembly of popular sci-fi movie tropes and I wasn’t expecting much else. Then as I watched the movie, I realized how enjoyable and engaging this original story by writer T.S. Nowlin was and what must have attracted Tom Cruise to want to star and produce this project in 2012. It met a long developmental hell, as is common in the industry, before being given a second life at Netflix with Ryan Reynolds as star and director Shawn Levy (Free Guy). It kind of muffs the action and sci-fi spectacle, but The Adam Project is a movie that’s big where it counts.
Adam (Reynolds) is a pilot in 2050 who is fighting against a corporate evil that uses time travel to enshrine its power. Adam’s own wife (Zoe Saldana) crash landed in 2018. In desperation, he travels back in time to find her and team up against their future foes, except he lands not in 2018 but in 2022, and he meets his younger, twelve-year-old self (Walker Scobell). It so happens that Adam’s ship is marked to respond only to his DNA, so he needs his younger self to help while he recovers from his injuries. Unfortunately, the future is antsy to eliminate Adam and sends killer super soldiers and missile-launching spaceships. Both Adams come to the conclusion the only way to prevail is to stop the initial first steps of the invention of time travel, meaning going back further to see their departed father, Louis Reed (Mark Ruffalo), the inadvertent creator of time travel.
Where The Adam Project really shines is with its core ideas and relationships, which is the emotional heart of a movie. It’s peculiar because we’re so used to seeing the other half, the sci-fi action spectacle, prioritized at the expense of story and characterization. Usually a studio puts much more emphasis on a movie looking good, or at least passably entertaining, and less on the substance that would make it meaningfully so. Credit to the filmmakers that they understood what the core appeal of this movie was and that is the idea of characters out of time getting a chance to interact, learn, and reconcile. Who among us wouldn’t want another opportunity to talk with a loved one before they are gone? Who among us would not be hesitant to eliminate the special confluence of events that lead a special someone into our life? The idea of two different aged versions of one character butting heads is inherently fun but also meaningful, because every one of their squabbles or disagreements is telling from a character standpoint. We’re learning about the differences between these two versions and two different timelines. The older Adam is resentful of his younger self, of his naivety, and looking to toughen him up or settle some scores he thinks will be cathartic. The younger version resents his older self for being so domineering, for being so cynical, and for pushing him into uncomfortable situations to relieve long-standing grudges that he hasn’t dwelled over yet. It also allows older Adam to remember things that he has forgotten from the perspective of his younger self. The buddy banter is capable and spry but it’s also revelatory about the characters, which makes every interaction more important.
Adam’s father doesn’t come back until the second half of the film, and then the movie transforms into a real family affair and takes on extra pathos. Dear old dad is the square pushing back against the ethical implications of knowingly participating with time travel. Here we have three different characters, all related, but each has a different perspective and competing goals: Younger Adam wants to beat the bad guys but also is freshest in his grief over his dad and wants to save him; Older Adam wants to rescue his wife but also has a score to settle with his departed father; and Dad gets a chance to see his grown son, something he will never otherwise witness, but is adamant about refusing to help and prosper from time travel foreknowledge shenanigans. That’s a good combination of conflicts and personality differences, and through the relatable lens of broken relationships repairing between two sons and their father, it elevates each routine action moment later.
My other surprise was how mundane the action plays in The Adam Project. I started to notice how the action was usually pretty small-scale with only a handful of future soldiers fighting in relatively open and empty spaces. The big future addition is an electrified baton that older Adam utilizes, as younger Adam gushes, much like a lightsaber. It has the power to propel enemies in a force blast that launches out in a circumference, but I kept questioning why Adam wasn’t knocked over by this force as well? It’s a cool device but little else is utilized to separate the past and future. When the characters murder people, they vanish in fiery clouds, free of blood, and we’re told this is what happens when a person is killed outside their timeline. I think it was meant to make the audience forget the mechanics or downplay that all these vanishing soldiers are actually being murdered from existence. The younger versions of these characters are still present but it’s not like there’s another version that will take their place. Their lives ended in this moment as they traveled back in time to this final fate. No do-overs for them. The finale of The Adam Project is a mess of bad CGI and a world-destroying machine; both it and the plot are on apocalyptic autopilot at this point. The preceding movie was much better to simply fall victim to such a dumb climax. It’s not enough to dent the positives that came before it, but the movie succumbs to the pressures of big blockbuster silliness it had avoided.
Here is a vehicle that makes perfect use of the charms of its leading man. Reynolds (Free Guy) has always been a charismatic performer, a fast-talking rogue you can’t help but fall for, but not every movie role allows him to play to his strengths, Sometimes he’s just on quip overload and can come across like the overly ironic, insincere, vacuous version of his motormouth persona. His glib demeanor has a way of eating him whole. Here, the actor gets to essentially be playing off himself, and it works so much better. Reynolds is also a natural with kids (see 2008’s Definitely, Maybe) and there’s an inherent big brother/little brother vibe to the Adam interactions that makes them heartwarming while also amusing. Newcomer Scobell is able to hold his own with Reynolds, no small feat. He has a vibrant, excitable energy that feels youthful without getting into annoying Anakin “yippee” Skywalker territory. Reynolds may be the star but you’ll enjoy spending time with young Adam too, and this is also a credit to Scobell and his performance. Ruffalo and Jennifer Garner (a welcomed 13 Going on 30 reunion) are enjoyable if extremely under utilized; each could have had a whole movie from their vantage point.
The Adam Project is an action movie that looks like typical pandering studio junk at first glance but gets the hard stuff right, namely the reasons why you should care about any of the flying bodies, explosions, and world-ending CGI. It’s about the characters, and here we have a dynamic that keeps things interesting and fun while also making the dilemma personable and emotional. The same stakes given to saving the world are also given to having one more conversation with a departed father or with trying to get things right in your past while time is still ahead of you. The Adam Project might be overlooked or discounted because of how its parts appear to be generic and stale, but it’s the care with which they are assembled that won me over. I’m just amazed that, for once, a Hollywood big-budget tentpole release emphasized the right stuff.
Nate’s Grade: B
What are we doing here? This new Netflix Texas Chainsaw Massacre is part reboot and part distant sequel to the 1974 original, even bringing back sole survivor Sally Hardesty to get her very grizzled Jamie Lee Curtis-in-Halloween 2018 vengeance. There are a lot of bad sequels and remakes in this franchise’s history, blinked out of existence here with this ret-con, so keep your expectations pretty low. This is a 75-minute movie with a wisp of a plot, so much so that it doesn’t even wait until the twenty-minute mark for the conveyor belt of carnage to begin. I suppose that can be a virtue for genre audiences. This is a decidedly gory and crunchy horror movie, gleefully splashing in entrails and jump scares rather than taking the time to develop something more. If we’re upholding the original’s timeline, then this Leatherface is in his mid-seventies. We need fun slasher movies too (I enjoyed the fifth Scream), but this one just feels spiteful and creatively hollow. I don’t really even understand the premise, that a group of political activists are literally buying or auctioning a ghost town to turn it into a gentrified, liberal mecca in the Texas desert. Young liberals are removing racist Texans from their homes and Fyre Fest-chasing Zoomers are invading? What? Then there’s our Final Girl who herself is the survivor of a school shooting and working through her trauma, and flashbacks, to regain her control by literally learning to arm herself. Oh no. Elise Fisher (Eighth Grade), you deserve so much better. It’s fast-paced. It’s exceedingly bloody. It’s over quickly. I guess there are ways this new Texas Chainsaw Massacre could have been worse but there’s even more ways it could have been better.
Nate’s Grade: C
For writer/director Paolo Sorrentino’s Oscar-winning 2013 film The Great Beauty, of which I was a great fan, I wrote: “It’s a bawdy, beautiful, and entertaining film but one that also takes its time, luxuriates in atmosphere… The film is far more free-floating and meditative … I felt like I could celebrate the absurdities and joys of life along with the people onscreen. It’s existential without being laboriously pretentious, and the comedy and stylish flourishes help anchor the entertainment.” Most of those words still apply to 2021’s autobiographical coming-of-age drama, The Hand of God, so why does it feel less appealing this time? We follow a young man in 1980s Naples and his large, boisterous, very Italian family. It’s a movie of moments, several extended vignettes, and it sadly doesn’t add up to much for me. I think that’s because the young protagonist is too blank to care about. He’s a surrogate for the filmmaker, but you never get a sense of his passions or interests or even personality. It’s a movie of people talking to and at him, so it’s hard to work up much emotion for his triumphs and perseverence. There are some memorable parts, like his awkward deflowering to an older woman, and a tragic turn halfway through that sneaks up on you. The life lessons are familiar for the well-trod territory, and the personal details of the era, the community, the 1982 World Cup (where we get the title from) feel richly realized as Sorrentino’s gauzy nostalgia. It’s just that Sorrentino’s ratio of interesting to ponderous moments has tilted into the negative this time. The Hand of God is overlong, free-floating, occasionally beautiful and frustratingly inaccessible.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Actress Rebecca Hall’s debut as a screenwriter and a director was snatched up by Netflix and now poised as an Oscar contender. It’s set in the 1920s and follows two women, Irene (Tessa Thompson) and Clare (Ruth Negga). Both women come from the same neighborhood but have lived different though fruitful lives, though Clare’s fortunes hinge on a secret she hides even from her rich husband. She’s a light-skinned Black woman but she has been posing as being white, and she’s reaped the rewards. As the two former friends reconnect, Clare visits the clubs and parties of Harlem as if a tourist, and she seems to have charmed Irene’s husband to spark unrest in her home. The movie is very tasteful and stately, filmed in black and white and in a 4:3 aspect ratio, communicating the boxes these women felt trapped in by society’s racial aptitudes. The problem is that Passing has so much explosive drama at its core but it’s too demure to a fault, which leads to a lot of wheel spinning and pensive glances. The movie almost follows the “uninvited guest” plot device, where Clare makes herself more at home in Irene’s world to her chagrin. There’s a general danger of whether Clare’s secret will come out, especially since her husband is overtly racist, but she seems so blase about her situation. The movie seems to feel like it’s lacking a potent sense of dread for these women, leaving it more implied than felt. It’s a character study but the primary characters seem more like archetypes, symbols intended for a larger social debate after the film’s conclusion. Both actresses are terrific, however, and would be worthy nominees for awards. Negga (Loving) has the more locked-in performance as the woman living her facade, only offering glimpses of what the real Clare thinks about herself. Thompson (Dear White People) is the one trying to hold it all together while she tries to assess whether her former friend has figured out a social cheat code, is deluding herself, or is herself a corrupting influence. The ending is so abrupt that I had to rewind to better understand what had happened. It’s left for interpretation about culpability and intent, but it’s further confirmation that the characters are meant as symbols more than people, and their fates feel a little too tailored for study. Passing is a good movie, don’t get me wrong, but one that left me checking the time a little too often to see how slowly it was passing.
Nate’s Grade: B
Every year, it seems that Netflix’s crown jewel for their big Oscar hopes ends up getting marvelous critical acclaim, and then when I finally watch it I am left disappointed. It happened in 2018 with Roma. It happened in 2019 with The Irishman. And it happened in 2020 with Mank. I haven’t disliked any of those movies, but I was unable to see the highly laudable merits as other critics. Now here comes their big Oscar play for 2021, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, a Western that has been gracing the top of more critics lists than any other American film this year (I’ll be getting to you soon enough, Drive My Car). As I burned through awards movie after awards movie to assess, I held back from The Power of the Dog for a time. I just didn’t want to find that once again I was disappointed with the latest Netflix Oscar contender. I’m still chewing over my feelings with The Power of the Dog, which has a lot going on under the surface and a palpable tension that you’re unsure of how and when it will erupt. It’s also a movie that touches upon repression, toxic masculinity, manifest destiny, grooming, emotional and physical manipulation, and the danger of unstable men who are unable to process who they really are.
Set in 1925 Montana, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his brother George (Jessie Plemons) own and operate a cattle ranch. George marries a widow, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and brings his new wife and her teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to live at the ranch. Phil resents his new sister-in-law, looks down on her son, and torments both repeatedly. Rose sees Phil as an enemy, someone who will not stop until he forces her out, and his target becomes her son, Peter.
This is less a traditional Western in several respects and more a tight character study that happens to be set at the conclusion of a Western fantasy for America, transitioning to modernity. It goes against our preconceived notions of a Western, not in a deliberately deconstructive way like 1992’s brilliant Best Picture, Unforgiven, but more in providing contrary thematic details that often get squeezed out. I was expecting the movie to take place maybe during the 1870s or 1880s, but the fact that it’s taking place five years removed from the Great Depression offers different story opportunities and larger reflection. There’s a reason this story is told well after the halcyon days of the Old Wild West. The movie is about certain characters holding onto an exclusive past that has eclipsed them and others ready to move forward by shuttling over their past and the obstacles standing in the way of personal progress.
There are thematic layers expertly braided together that touch upon the larger question over what it means to be a man in society. Each of the primary male characters (Phil, George, Peter) is an outsider to some degree, someone who doesn’t neatly fit into what constitutes a conventional man of the times. George is soft, empathetic, meek yet in a position of power from his family’s status; Peter is rail-thin, academic, odd, effeminate at turns, a dandy presented for ridicule; Phil is the one who presents as a “man’s man,” a hard-driving, hard-drinking man of the land who imposes his will on others. However, deep down, Phil is hiding a key part of himself that would conflict with his society’s view of masculinity. Each man bounces around points of conflict and connection with one another, familial bonds fraying, and a slow-burning battle for supremacy escalating.
The movie could have also been charitably nick-named “Benedict Cumberbatch is a jerk to everyone,” as this is much of what Campion’s script, based upon the 1957 novel by Thomas Savage consists of. The movie is absent a primary perspective. We drift from person to person in the small-scale ensemble, elevating this next character and their views and worries and priorities. Phil could be deemed the primary protagonist and antagonist, especially the latter. He’s a mean man. Phil is a man who likes to make others uncomfortable, who needles them, and he takes great interest in targeting Rose, partly because he doesn’t like the influence she has on his only brother, and partly because he can get away with it. When he sets his sights on Peter, you don’t quite know what this hostile man will do to get his way. Will he manipulate Peter to turn him from his mother? Will he endanger Peter as a threat to Rose? Will he go further and possibly kill Peter? Or, as becomes more evident, does he see Peter in a very different light, a special kinship that had defined Phil’s own secretive past.
I suppose it’s a spoiler to go further so if you want to, dear reader, then go ahead and skip to the next paragraph. Phil reveres “Bronco Henry,” a deceased rancher that taught him many things when he was younger. The movie heavily, heavily implies that this long-departed older man had a romantic relationship with Phil when he was much younger, something the grown Phil cherishes, caressing himself in private with a scrap of fabric belonging to Henry. The lazy characterization would be, “Oh, Phil is homophobic because he’s really gay, and he’s angry because he cannot accept himself.” With Campion, Phil could be viewed as a victim too. He was likely groomed by an older man, and maybe that relationship was viewed by Phil as more romantic and consensual than it was, but it’s the lingering nostalgic memory of the intimate happiness that he holds onto, afraid to move on because of the danger of letting go and the danger of possibly reaching out, being vulnerable again. Yes, dear reader, this is more a gay cowboy movie than Brokeback Mountain (which, to be fair, were sheep herders). Savage himself was also gay. As Phil takes Peter under his wing, you don’t know whether this man is going to kill or kiss him, and the tension is ripe enough that either way it can ties you up into anxious knots.
The acting is extremely polished all around, with each performer having layers of subtext to shield their true intentions. Cumberbatch (Spider-Man: No Way Home) is a thorn in so many sides and it isn’t until much later that the veil begins to drop, ever so slightly, allowing you to finally see extra dimension with what appears to be a bully character for so long. He might just be too impenetrable for too long for some viewers to develop any empathy. Plemons (Jungle Cruise) and Dunst (Melancholia) are sweet together, and I enjoyed how each one leans upon the other for support. Rose is the butt of much of Phil’s torment and teasing, so we watch Dunst break down under the constant abuse of her berating brother-in-law. When her character sees a way to gain an upper hand, it becomes like a light in the darkness for her momentary relief. I felt heartbroken for Rose as she studied a piano tune for weeks to impress esteemed guests of her husband’s, only to succumb to her nerves and insist she couldn’t play because she didn’t think she could be good enough. Then to watch Phil cruelly needle her further about her disappointment by whistling that same tune is even worse. This is the best acting of Smit-McPhee (Let Me In) since he was vying with Asa Butterfield (Hugo, Ender’s Game) for every preteen lead in big studio features. There’s a deliberate standoffish quality to the character, to Peter’s way of viewing others. It’s like he’s part alien, studying the things that make people tick. Like Cumberbatch, there are multiple layers to this performance because his intentions are equally if not more guarded. You almost need to watch the movie a second time to better identify what Smith-McPhee is doing in scene after scene.
The Power of the Dog is a terrific looking and sounding movie. The photography is beautiful, the New Zealand landscapes are awe-inspiring, the production design is handsome, the musical score by Johnny Greenwood (There Will Be Blood) is discordant strings that enhances the tension permeating through the movie. Campion hasn’t directed a movie in over ten years, and this is only her second movie since 2003’s misbegotten erotic thriller, In the Cut, starring an against-type Meg Ryan. It feels like she’s had no time away with how controlled and resonant her directing plays. I wish her script was less ambiguous to a fault; it errs somewhat I believe by holding out key revelations about Phil for too long, leaving us with the man being an unrepentant bully for too long. There are significant turns in the concluding minutes that will reorient your interpretation of the entire film, and I have every reason to believe that when I watch The Power of the Dog another time it will be even more impressive.
Congratulations, Netflix, on breaking your streak of disappointing me with your prized awards contenders. I’ve included many Netflix movies in my best lists, and worst lists, over the years, as that is the lot when you have such an enormous library in the prestige streaming arms race. The Power of the Dog is an intimate and occasionally even sensual Western that pushes its put-upon characters to their breaking point, and perhaps the audience, while rewarding the patient and observant viewer. There’s gnawing, uneasy tension that gets to be overwhelming, but the movie benefits from the unexpected destination for where that tension will lead. Will it be violence? Will it be passion? Will it be a crime of passion? The acting is great, the artistic quality of the movie is high, and each scene has much to unpack, allowing for further rewarding examination. I wish there was more of the last half hour when things better come into sharper focus, and I wish the movie was a little less ambiguous for so long, but this is one of the better films of 2021 and Campion’s best movie since 1993’s The Piano (I fully expect her to become the first female director nominated twice for the Best Director Oscar). The Power of the Dog is a lyrical, surprising drama, a sneaky character study, and proof that my Netflix overrated front-runner curse has been lifted (for now).
Nate’s Grade: A-