September 16, 2021

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Reviews: “The Power Of The Dog,” “Violet” & “The Story Of My Wife”


THE POWER OF THE DOG (Netflix – theatrical release Nov 17, streaming Dec 1):  Jane Campion’s first feature in a dozen years is a powerhouse that won’t be to all tastes.  It’s a western that sets out to subvert the genre’s conventions, a slow-burn psychological thriller that eventually explodes, and in the end, somewhat surprisingly, a satisfying entertainment.  Campion based her script on Thomas Savage’s story, and the story is set in 1920s Montana, as two very different ranching brothers, the scarily intense Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the sweeter-tempered, more civilized George (Jesse Plemons), come to a small town with the cowboys who work for them.  They’ve just completed a cattle drive, and they celebrate in a cafe run by the widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst) with her teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit McPhee).  George falls for Rose and takes her back to the family ranch  But Phil takes a dislike to Rose, and he has a visceral reaction to Peter, who isn’t his kind of masculine.  Tensions mount, as several of the characters aren’t entirely as they appear.  Campion’s control of her material is complete, with gorgeous yet menacing landscapes shot by Ari Wegner, a nerve-plucking score by Jonny Greenwood, and editing by Peter Sciberras that meticulously ratchets up the suspense to horror movie proportions.  Cumberbatch is brilliant, constantly adjusting Phil’s brutishness and cold calculations, and McPhee gradually builds the many layers of Peter’s character.  Power Of the Dog isn’t in a hurry, and it demands that viewers put themselves entirely into Jane Campion’s hands.  The result is well worth the ride.

VIOLET (Relativity – Oct 29):  Justine Bateman’s feature debut as a writer/director is packed with strong stylistic choices, maybe too tightly.  As in the recent Apple TV series Physical, the title character Violet (Olivia Munn), a production executive at a small Hollywood studio, hears a constant voice inside her head telling her what a loser she is and urging her to give in to her worst impulses–and with a more sociological bent than the one in Physical, Violet’s inner voice isn’t her own but an anonymous male (spoken by Justin Theroux).  Meanwhile, Violet’s hopes and yearnings are literally scrawled across the screen all the time, like a continuous journal entry, or the lyrics included with a confessional record album.  Add to that multiple frenzied montages portraying Violet’s state of mind, plus jump cuts, surreal visual cues and more.  For a while all of this, combined with Munn’s sharp and empathetic performance, has considerable punch.  It’s also refreshing to see a Hollywood story that initially seems to understand how the business actually works.  What becomes increasingly clear, though, is that Bateman’s message isn’t far from a self-help manual (once Violet starts to ignore the detestable voice in her head and speak her truth, literally everything in her life improves), and what had been complex becomes simplistic.  Violet earns a great deal of goodwill with its formal ambitions and clearly personal honesty, and it’s too bad that it settles for slogans.

THE STORY OF MY WIFE (no distrib):  One definition of film festival hell is a 169-minute period film based on a Hungarian novel (by Milan Fust, set in the 1920s, published in 1942) and adapted by a Hungarian filmmaker (Ildiko Enyedi), starring a French actress (Lea Seydoux) and a Dutch actor (Gijs Naber) in a story set mostly in France and filmed mostly in English, with dashes of most of the above languages plus German and Italian.  The story has sea captain Jakob (Naber) idly remarking at a cafe that in order to settle his upset stomach–you read that right–he might marry the next woman who walks in.  Said woman is Lizzy (Sendoux), they do in fact quickly wed, and guess what, things don’t go smoothly.  There’s adultery, pathological jealousy, and unfortunately for the audience, not much chemistry between the stars, as attractive as they may be.  This goes on, as noted, for 169 minutes, with a payoff at the end that’s supposed to be moving but mostly inspires relief that it’s finally done.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."