Tag Archives: Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie

The Power of the Dog

Rose (Kirsten Dunst) is a widow running a dusty little restaurant in the middle of nowhere, Montana, 1925. She has a gangly, sensitive son named Pete (Kodi Smit-McPhee) with an interest in medicine and a fondness for flowers. One night, a bunch of crude and rowdy cowboys come in for supper. Their bosses, ranch owners Phil and George Burbank, are brothers you’d swear were from different mothers. George (Jesse Plemons), the more mild-mannered of the two, wears a literal white hat. Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), is the mean one, the man with the sharp edge, who eggs on the cowhands as they verbally abuse Pete as he waits on them. Pete dissolves into nervous ticks, his mother dissolves into tears. Tender-hearted George checks in on them and one thing leads to another – pretty soon he’s confessing to brother Phil that he and Rose are married.

Rose’s life at the ranch isn’t a happy one. Phil is determined to make her life miserable, and Rose wilts and regresses under his misathropy and mistreatment. Husband George, clueless when it comes to women, tries to cheer her up with a piano she can’t play, and social engagements that are more of a burden. The Burbanks are gentleman farmers, which George embraces, well-dressed in bowties, hands kept clean, nothing but gentility for him. Phil, meanwhile, has no time for baths because he’s too busy riding the land, castrating the bulls, and bullying everyone in his vicinity. With Rose turning to bourbon to escape her unhappiness, tensions are about to get even worse with Pete about to join for his summer break from med school. His delicacy makes for an easy target on the ranch, and seems to bring out a particular cruelty in Phil.

Writer-director Jane Campion may not seem like the obvious choice for a film about toxic masculinity, but trust that she is a master story-teller and will get the job done. The Power of the Dog may be a little slow to start, but the tension Campion builds is powerful, even uncomfortable. From the moment Cumberbatch punches a horse in the face, you know without a doubt that something terrible (well, more terrible) is going to happen. There’s a certain fatalism about it; with every character that’s hiding something, repressing or sublimating something, we feel that tension tightly coiled and ready to spring like a predator on its prey.

Campion digs deep into their psyches, and a talented cast goes a long way in helping her establish bits of torture and trouble roiling beneath, but it’s never what you expect. Though Phil despises weakness, it can sometimes be an asset, hiding things in plain sight. This is also a metaphor for the film, the way it creeps up on you, even though you’re expecting it, even though you see it coming, it will still surprise you.

Dunst and Plemons are very good in this, their real-life romance lending authenticity to their quiet, couply moments. The film, however, comes down to the strange, complicated, and antagonistic relationship between Peter and Phil. Peter brings out the worst in Phil, he triggers something in Phil that he seems powerless to ignore. Smit-McPhee plays Peter meekly, deferring and often cowering to Phil, but also seeming to understand something essential about Phil that no one else can see. And although this is not the kind of role Cumberbatch is known for, he finds so many nooks and crannies in Phil that he makes him a truly compelling, almost charming, character. He’s educated, and cultured, but he prefers to walk around in stinking chaps, with testicle juice caked around his fingernails. His misanthropy seems automatic, his cruelty instinctual, and yet when no one else is around, we see a softer side of Phil, a side he takes great pains to keep secret. Yet somehow Cumberbatch can take those two sides of the character and make them feel both at home in the man who always remains a bit of a mystery, perhaps even to himself.

The Power of the Dog implies that everyone has a tormentor, and Campion delights in dangling them with astonishing talent and assured mastery. I can’t wait to see it again.

The Power of the Dog is an official selection of TIFF 2021.

It is scheduled to be released in an Oscar-qualifying, limited theatrical release on November 17, 2021, and then heads straight for Netflix on December 1. It is already a Best Picture front-runner so catch it any way you can.

True History of the Kelly Gang

The ‘true’ in the title is false of course, or debatable anyway, which I suppose means the ‘history’ part is too, although our story does take place in the past. Peter Carey’s vital and vigorous novel is a work of fiction, using many true aspects of the Kelly Gang story but inventing others as well. The film poses as Ned Kelly’s autobiography, mostly written and narrated by himself to an unborn child that Carey made up. But if Ned Kelly had had a pregnant wife, if she had half a brain she would have wondered if Ned would live to meet his daughter, and might have encouraged him to leave behind a written legacy, just in case.

The film is a departure not only in story but in tone and in telling, the violence crazed and stylized but the main concern more character than plot. You may already be familiar with the banks that were robbed and the cattle stolen, but this “true history” is more interested not in what they did but why they did it. The class struggle is palpable enough, the sense that there is no place for these young men, no future. There is real rage here, and a dangerous accumulation of testosterone with no constructive outlet.

Ned’s (George McKay) legacy has of course had a lasting impact on Australian culture; this film gives him a punk rock makeover for the 21st century and adds to the myth if not the man. With stunning cinematography, a gritty feel, and anarchic energy, there is much to be admired in Justin Kurzel’s film. Too bad I just didn’t like it. There was a lot of muck, a lot of exaggerated portrayals of machismo, and for me it was just too much crazy and not enough cohesiveness. But, if you’re looking for a western with a distinctly Aussie flavour, this one’s got that, plus lads in dresses, Russel Crowe, Charlie Hunnam, Thomasin McKenzie, and Nicholas Hoult, if you needed more convincing.

Lost Girls

When Shannan runs screaming from a home in a gated community on Long Island and places a frantic call to 911, it takes police an hour to respond. They find nothing amiss but Shannan is never seen again. The cops’ lackluster investigation accomplishes very little but coincidentally they stumble upon a dozen bodies in this very same community, all of them sex workers fitting Shannan’s general description, but none of them her. And the police do truly treat it like a coincidence; they announce that her disappearance is unrelated and are largely unconcerned.

Shannan’s mother, Mari (Amy Ryan) doesn’t fit the profile of a grieving mother. Her family isn’t made for television. There’s precious little sympathy extended to victims like Shannan. They live a “high risk” lifestyle so when bad things happen, the victims are blamed, the police are unimpressed, the culprits allowed to disappear, or worse, to re-offend. Certainly in this case, the Long Island serial killer appears to have more than a dozen victims, and those are just the skeletons police have accidentally stumbled upon. Imagine if they were actually looking.

Shannan Gilbert was a daughter, a friend, a big sister. She was a real person. This is a true story. Her short life was filled with pain and because there were no easy choices for her, her death was not a tragedy worth investigating. This movie doesn’t have a real ending because Shannan’s murder remains unsolved. Director Liz Garbus allows us to sit with this reality, a small and meager tribute to a life cut short. The film flirts with different suspects only to highlight that the police do not. This entire investigation (or lack thereof) is either gross incompetence or a complicit coverup. The truths here are ugly, the endings aren’t happy. But the film is suffused with a roiling anger that is perhaps the important take away of Lost Girls – a sense of injustice for young, vulnerable women, whom society has judged not worthy of its concern.

The King

In the early 15th century, Timothee Chalamet had a mushroom cut. One of my sisters had a mushroom cut. This was in the late 20th century of course. She was 5 or 6 at the time. I believe that haircut haunts her to this day but the truth is, it was adorable. All the way, fully 100% adorable and I am exceedingly confident each and every one of you would agree. I would post a picture just to prove it if I thought for a second I’d live to hit publish another day.

Anyyyyyway. Hal (Chalamet) is a young cad about town. Technically he’s the prince of England, but like anyone with a modicum of sanity, he doesn’t think being King sounds like much fun and so he plans to reject the crown. But then his daddy dies and so does his brother and shit just basically conspires against him and boom bang bing, he’s King Henry V. Little King Henry is determined to distinguish himself from his father, largely thought to have brought a lot of trouble to his kingdom, yet he rather quickly ends up at war with France.

I’ve gone and said quickly but Robert Pattinson, who plays the Dauphin of France, does not appear on screen for about 1 hour and 14 minutes. I wasn’t counting, I swear. You’ll know him by his rousing “Big balls, small cock” speech. Yeah, they left that one out of history books for some reason.

Timothee Chalamet puts forth a very impressive performance, calling on the entire range of human emotion, which is likely both historically inaccurate and behaviour unbecoming of a monarch. The point is, he’s very good. I’m about to say he’s even the only good thing about the movie. You’ll disagree of course, feel free to do so, but I thought it was a real chore. Dark and dank – what, you think a movie can’t be dank? You’re calling me out on this? Determined to humiliate me even though I’m just trying to say this movie is damp and smells vaguely of mildew? Fine – dark and disagreeable, The King is not a pleasant experience. It’s also quite boring. One time a couple of underdeveloped princes wrestle, but they quickly got out of breath, mostly because they were each wearing like 60 lbs of armour, which kind of makes their attempt to kill each other seem less than genuine. Anyway, I’m just saying it would have been better had they been naked.

The King reminded me a lot of Outlaw King, only without all the horse murder. Haha, jkjkjk, horses definitely die. Netflix clearly believes we’ll only start taking them seriously if they make historical, horse murdery crap that nobody actually wants to watch. Give me another season of Nailed It! over this shite any day.

TIFF19: Jojo Rabbit

I love director Taika Waititi more than makes sense, more than is reasonable by any standard. His absurd sense of humour speaks to me. His arch commentary on the perfectly banal is what I live for. So it was with a heavy heart that I stepped out of the packed theatre and admitted to Sean, who’d rushed the film unsuccessfully (festival vernacular: “rushing” means standing in line for hours when you don’t have a ticket, in case some ticket holder doesn’t show), that Jojo Rabbit was just okay. And I kept up that ambivalence for all of 30 seconds before confessing that I’d loved loved LOVED it, despite having solemnly promised not to rub it in if he didn’t make it in. Sorry, Sean. Jojo Rabbit was fucking awesome.

It’s about a little boy named Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) living in 1940s Germany. He’s a good little Nazi boy, an unthinking fanatic; his bedroom walls plastered with propaganda posters that reflect his somewhat innocent claim “I’m massively into swastikas.” So he’s utterly broken-hearted when he flunks out of Nazi sleepaway camp. He’ll never know the honour of serving in Hitler’s Guard. His father went away to war and hasn’t been heard from since so it’s just him and his mother, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson). What’s a devastated little fellow to do with no father figure around? Invent an imaginary friend, of course, and why not aim high and adopt everyone’s favourite Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler (Taika Waititi) himself?

Jojo Rabbit is a satirical comedy about learned hate. It’s sympathetic to this child who blindly loves and trusts in Hitler, but doesn’t yet have a taste for blood or violence. Hitler is his Batman, his hero, but he’s about to learn that all heroes are flawed. And some turn out to be villains. But first, there’s a complication. Of course there’s a complication, as if growing up the outcast in Hitler’s Germany wasn’t hard enough. There’s a monster in the attic – or, in fact, a Jew (bless you), named Elsa (Thomasin Mckenzie). Jojo’s mom is hiding her so the secret must be kept. Hangings in the town square remind us of the stakes. But this pull between duty to his family and to his country creates an awful lot of pressure for one small boy, especially when his imaginary friend is quite critical of the situation, and Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), a soldier who’s befriended him, is a little too close for comfort. It’s obviously a disorienting time for him, to find out inch by inch that the real monster is his imagined friend, and the girl in the attic is in fact a lot like him. Imagine the dissonance, the panic, the confusion, the revulsion.

Scarlett Johansson gets the chance to clown around as a mother trying her best to get her young son through a terrifying, grueling war. I can’t remember seeing her this loose and free on the screen before, which is ironic considering the character is rife with burden. In many ways, the mother is the most grounded character; you feel the weight of her responsibility, but also her vitality. She’s not merely trying to survive a war – she’s living. This is her now. Even when the world has gone to shit, there is no pause button. Sons must be raised. Homes must be kept. Jews must be hidden. But still, there is dancing.

Jojo is a complex character, embodying both hatred and innocence in one 10 year old body. It would have been critical to find the perfect and, I imagine, rare talent to fill the role, but believe me, this kid is up for it. He plays against McKenzie particularly well, who is in fact not a monster but a moody and sometimes bratty teenage girl. Neither is strictly the sinner nor the saint history imagines them to be. The two form the most tenuous, the most fraught of bonds, but it’s enough. Familiarity is often enough. It is a cultivator of hope, a vanquisher of fear.

My favourite scenes, however, are when Jojo’s imaginary pal Hitler drops by. Taika Waititi plays him without hindsight; his Hitler doesn’t yet understand how history will judge him. He still thinks he’s all that and a bag of chips. Waititi plays him fey, embracing the absurd conflict and duality of the character who is of course the architect of evil but also just a very small and not very brave man. He has fun with it but never forgets who this man is or why we hate him.

And it probably goes without saying that Sam Rockwell is having a ball. He’s done wild satirical stuff before so he approaches this with guts and gusto. Which is not to say that anyone in the cast fails to bring the necessary sensitivity to a movie like this. They do. But they also remember that no matter where they fall on the scale of good to evil, they were all just human beings.

It’s an interesting choice to go to Nazi Germany to deliver such a powerful message of anti-hate but where else would it have so much impact? And who else would endeavour to take it on except the fearless Taika Waititi, for whom rules seem not to apply. We worry about which subjects can be spoken of, and which can be made fun of, but the answer is pretty much anything if it’s funny enough. And Jojo Rabbit is funny enough – funny enough to counter hate with laughter, and isn’t that a beautiful thing? At another movie I saw at TIFF this year, Mr. Rogers reminded us that “anything human is mentionable, and anything mentionable is manageable.” Jojo Rabbit helps us talk about difficult things. It’s an important act of remembrance, and Waititi shows us that even if we’re burning out on all those war stories, there can (and must) still be new and inventive ways of remembering. It’s not just a comedy. It made me laugh and it made me cry, but most of all it moved me to think of these people as human, like me. And how things got away on them little by little until it was too late. History repeats itself, but it’s not too late for us. Not yet.

Leave No Trace

This is a special breed of movie. In a summer of blockbusters, this quiet movie is a stand-out, a necessary refuge from the storm of testosterone and TNT playing at the local cineplex.

It’s about an army vet, Will (Ben Foster) who has made a home for himself and 13 year old daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) in a national park, where they read books, grow and forage food, and live a peaceful, low-stress existence. Until, that is, a small mistake trips them up and they are apprehended by park rangers and social services. Though Tom is obviously well-cared for and has been MV5BMjExNWUzZDItMTdmMS00ZjQ5LThlZTktYTE0Y2RhNzEzOWRkXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNzM1MTc3ODg@._V1_educated beyond her grade level, she should be in school, and have a roof over her head. At least that’s what the social worker says. But once housed and employed, things get sticky. Tom is a curious and lively teenager, making friends and thriving in her new environment. Her dad struggles to assimilate, and he’s largely unable to cope.

Trust me, I know the description sounds ordinary, but the execution is flawless.

  1. The casting is impeccable. Ben Foster isn’t a big, bankable name but he’s every casting director’s wet dream. He brings intensity and gravitas to every role he encounters, and the stoic approach he takes with Will is perfect, though few other actors would give themselves permission to try such subtlety. Opposite him, Thomasin McKenzie is fabulous. The movie is all about their dynamic and it only works if both halves of their little family unit is working in synchronicity. Tom is obviously bright but McKenzie gives her such a sense of vulnerability that we never lose sight of what’s at stake.
  2. The script, by Debra Granik and Anne Rosellini, is such a luxury. They find so much value and beauty in simplicity that I’m astonished at how much I felt for what amounts to a fairly sparse script. The difference is, they’ve edited carefully, they’ve pared it down to the essentials, and tuned them ever so carefully. What’s left is a lot of room for the actors to be comfortable and take ownership. Room for the director to make her mark. It’s so smartly-written. It would be easy to find melodrama in these circumstances but instead Granik and Rosellini consistently find empathy and dignity and it makes weepy just to write about it.
  3. The cinematography is astonishing. At times it looks like an expensive nature documentary – one that fits seamlessly into a feature film. Someone (Michael McDonough) took a lot of care with this. He films the park with such loving and patience we get the sense of how at home the characters are in this special place. By contrast, the city looks colder, less inviting.
  4. Granik’s direction is flawless. As you may be surmising from everything written so far, there isn’t much in the movie, not even silences and blank spaces, that aren’t actively working for the plot or the characters. And by keeping things trim, it forces the audience to be active too. The keys are all there, and the deft direction encourages us to pick them up, sort them out. This movie respects its characters and its audience – objectively, the events and circumstances are tragic, but they’re communicated with such restraint. It’s easy to have sympathy when no one is asking for it. Will and Tom do not describe their situation as homelessness, and the movie lovingly backs them up in this.

This movie is so thoughtful and caring and it shows a different model for living and loving with no judgment. There’s no malice, no villains. Even the social services are shown to be well-intentioned. But Will and Tom are hardly the only outcasts, and Leave No Traces embraces them as well. It has room in its heart for everyone and even though there is much to be sad about, the film is so sweetly assembled that I left the theatre with a little pocket of hope in my heart. There are no easy answers, but Granik’s gaze is fair and honest and I’m just bowled over by every inch of this movie. It’s a rare and precious thing, and though it may be called Leave No Trace, it actually leaves quite a mark.