“Bronco Henry told me that a man was made by patience and the odds against him.”
The Power of the Dog is a wonderful slow-burn character-driven Western from writer/director Jane Campion. Phil Burbank is an unusual role for Bennedict Cumberbatch, a man seemingly focused more on the corporeal than the intellectual. He is initially introduced as a misogynistic rancher whose acts of dispassionate and deliberate cruelty are unsettling to watch without the need for physical violence, though we discover that he was not always the brutish cowboy and that this is an intentionally cultivated persona. The film’s inciting incident is his brother’s marriage (of which Phil plainly disapproves) but Campion has structured the film obtusely so that, whilst we know some sort of confrontation is inevitable, the narrative direction is never clear to the audience. This proves an effective way to force the viewer simply to appreciate the character development in the moment, rather than pre-empting the arc. There are clear parallels to There Will Be Blood, particularly in the patriarchal friction between powerfully overbearing men who carved out the frontier and subtler educated people who would ultimately succeed them. Campion’s immersive approach is not entirely without fault, with The Power of the Dog oddly sidelining some characters midway through the film, whilst its abrupt conclusion is simultaneously clever and somewhat dissatisfying.
“Only you can decide what’s best for you, Jesse. Not him, not me.”
El Camino is essentially a Breaking Bad special, so judging it as a standalone film may seem unfair; however, since that’s apparently what Netflix wants, I will oblige. We pick up with Jesse Pinkman at the end of the series, hurtling down a darkened highway to freedom in the titular El Camino. Using his former crew as a first stop is smart way to remind viewers just how far Jesse has developed, but the comparison is with a broken, psychologically shattered Jesse in the throes of PTSD after his time in captivity. Given Breaking Bad’s body count, flashbacks are how we revisit a number of characters, though it often feels more like fan service than necessary to show Jesse’s decision-making. Overall this plays much as an extended episode of the show, with carefully ratcheted tension and a few impressive instances of prestige cinematography. The problem is that the methodical pacing is no longer serving a grander season-long arc, leaving El Camino feeling hollow as a result. Some have suggested the movie is about PTSD but we never really see Jesse dealing with his experience or coming to accept it. Rather, the film is about him learning finally to make a genuine decision for himself and to act upon it, reflected by the flashback conversations which bookend the film. That step serves as an acceptable coda to the series, in which his character was largely passive beneath Walter White’s determination and self-belief, but it has little to offer as a standalone film.