The Power of the Dog; Nightmare Alley; Limited Series: Only Murders in the Building; True Story

Benedict Cumberbatch certainly does a lot of glowering in The Power of the Dog.

As Phil, one of two brothers who own a ranch in 1925 Montana (the other brother being Jesse Plemons as George), Cumberbatch glowers at his subservient ranch hands and his all-too-kind brother George, but reserves most of his glowering for widow and innkeeper Kirsten Dunst’s Rose (as well as her sensitive young son Peter, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee). After Phil and his ranch hands take turns humiliating Rose and Peter during a stay at their inn, George becomes quite taken with Rose, and after a gentle “whirlwind” courtship, George and Rose marry and move out to the ranch, where Phil does his utmost to sabotage the marriage, disheartening and demoralizing Rose—and accelerating those efforts when he learns of her susceptibility to spirits (not the ghost variety). Meanwhile a very concerned Peter is similarly treated by Phil, until he sees Phil in a secluded spot and…let’s just say what Phil has been trying to hide from his manly men won’t be too shocking. And if you’re paying attention, the subsequent events shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise—though the muted execution by writer and director Jane Campion dilutes some of the impact of the concluding scenes.

There’s been an awful lot of praise heaped on The Power of the Dog, from Jane Campion’s direction (not necessarily shared by this reviewer as the pacing is a bit too languid, though it does hold the interest and there are some beautifully composed shots) to its ambivalent portrayal of masculinity, to the power of Cumberbatch’s Phil. However, while Cumberbatch is always watchable, much of it is on one note; it seems more of a none-too-subtle “look I’m playing an American cowboy—and a troubled one at that” turn. Equally, if not more effective, is Kirsten Dunst’s Rose, beautifully conveying notes of vulnerability, hope, motherly concern, disappointment and grit. Jesse Plemons (Dunst’s real-life partner) is also excellent as the patient, compassionate brother while Kodi Smith-McPhee does a fine job as the troubled son who is his mother’s biggest ally and somehow Phil’s unlikely confidant. Even with its flaws, it’s worth a look-see on Netflix (or on the big screen if that’s where you’re a-heading…partner.)

Image: https://deadline.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/000004_NA_14781_edit.jpg?w=1280&h=720&crop=1

It’s not that the world needed Guillermo Del Toro’s Nightmare Alley, a remake of the 1947 noir classic, but it’s here and one thing the film makes clear is who and what a geek is—and does. In fact, much of the first half of the film concerns the life and upkeep of the geek (for the uninitiated, he’s a fella who functions as a sideshow attraction, both attracting and repelling customers when he bites the heads off live chickens) and the depths to which one must sink if one were to be one. In fact, if you’re a foreshadowing (and irony) aficionado as I am, you will know where the story is ultimately heading.

But let’s return to the dark tale that Nightmare Alley tells, and it certainly is a darker take than the original novel by William Gresham, as well as the 1947 classic (starring a cast-against-type Tyrone Power). Here, Bradley Cooper is Stan, an itinerant man with a past who gets himself a job with a carnival run by Willem (“here we ask no questions”) DaFoe. It’s not long before he becomes friendly with fortune teller Zeena (Toni Collette) and her alcoholic husband Pete (David Strathairn). Zeena and Pete had both been in the big time with a mind reading act, before drink and trepidation (on Pete’s part) pulled the plug and consigned them to the small time. However, Pete’s “big-time” mindreading act, though useless to him, is potentially the ticket to paradise for the ambitious and quietly unscrupulous Stan. (He also has an ally in Rooney Mara’s sympathetic Molly, whose own act is an electrically charged one at that.) The first half of the film lays on both the carnival atmosphere and the air of foreboding in a detailed, heavily atmospheric manner; it is also filled with colorful portrayals (Collette, Straithairn, Defoe, Ron Perlman’s strongman), as well as a solid turn by Bradley Cooper.

Then there’s that second half, with Stanton making it to the big time, joining forces with a sophisticated and predatory psychologist (Cate Blanchett) and disregarding Pete’s cautionary words about blending mind reading and the spirit world. Though I am fond of the original (including Helen Walker’s performance as the icy psychologist), it was always hard to believe Stan’s choices in this section, particularly with regard to money matters and his faith in certain individuals. If anything, this remake goes to greater lengths to portray Cooper’s Stan as being naturally intuitive and both savvy and calculating—it is also more leisurely paced, so we don’t get a sense of an individual hurtling toward his doom (as in the original). Rather we now have the time to question why Stan is making these choices—and why a character who seemed so perceptive (almost in spite of himself) in the first half could be so obtuse in the second half. The film is vividly photographed, and there are some powerful portrayals and a few surprises that are not in the Gresham novel—but this Nightmare Alley is a little too long (and a bit too obvious). But you will be clear about what a geek does.

ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING, from left: Selena Gomez, Steve Martin, Martin Short, ‘Who is Tim Kono?’, (Season 1, ep. 102, aired Aug. 31, 2021). photo: Craig Blankenhorn / ©Hulu / Courtesy Everett Collection

I was a bit lukewarm toward the preceding films but if you’re looking for pure entertainment, might I recommend two limited series that are markedly different but are equally pleasurable. Only Murders in the Building, currently on Hulu, is a delight, as disparate neighbors Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez connect via a true-murder podcast—and then through a possible murder in their apartment building. Their investigation yields great chemistry among the leads, some clever and funny situations, and a host of engaging supporting performances and guest star turns, including Sting, Nathan Lane, and Jane Lynch. It’s on Hulu and it’s been renewed for another season—it also holds up on repeated viewings. 

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The other recommendation is Netflix’s True Story, starring Kevin Hart as a wildly successful comedian/movie star who unadvisedly goes partying and drinking with brother Wesley Snipes and winds up with a dead girl in his bed. Snipes gets hold of a ‘cleaner” (Billy Zane) to help his brother out of the potential career-killing (not to mention life-killing) mess, but the cleaner has his own ideas about compensation. I don’t want to reveal too much; suffice it to say that each episode is tight, well-structured and acted, and that the twists keep you watching. And just when you think you have everything figured out…well, you’ll see. And I hope you do, since along with Only Murders…it’s one of the best shows I’ve seen this year. Highly recommended—and by the way, though Hart is excellent, Snipes steals it.

Mike Peros
Author: Mike Peros

Mike Peros is an author whose new book, JOSE FERRER: SUCCESS AND SURVIVAL, the first biography of the Oscar and Tony-winning actor, has just been published by the University Press of Mississippi, while his previous book, DAN DURYEA: HEEL WITH A HEART is now available in paperback.

Mike Peros is an author whose new book, JOSE FERRER: SUCCESS AND SURVIVAL, the first biography of the Oscar and Tony-winning actor, has just been published by the University Press of Mississippi, while his previous book, DAN DURYEA: HEEL WITH A HEART is now available in paperback.