In ‘CODA,’ ‘The Power of the Dog’ found the ultimate Oscars underdog

Sian Heder accepts the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for ‘CODA’
Sian Heder accepts the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for “CODA” during the show at the 94th Academy Awards.
(Myung Chun/Los Angeles Times)

In “The Power of the Dog,” a swaggering man of the West — authoritative, domineering, seemingly invincible — comes face to face with a most unexpected adversary, someone who looks harmless but turns out to be anything but. There’s a certain irony, then, that after looking like a clear-cut favorite for much of this past awards season, Jane Campion’s brooding psychological drama finally fell victim to its own powerful underdog Sunday night. Despite entering the Oscar race with a formidable 12 nominations, more than any other contender, “The Power of the Dog” ultimately won just one Oscar — for Campion’s direction, the one everyone knew it couldn’t lose. It lost the best picture Oscar to “CODA,” Siân Heder’s scrappy, jugular-piercing crowd-pleaser about a hearing teenager growing up within a Deaf family.

At what point exactly did “CODA” go in for the kill? Some might say this month, when Heder’s movie beat out “The Power of the Dog” and eight other nominees for the Producers Guild of America’s top prize — an honor that often aligns with the best picture Oscar and uses a similar preferential balloting system. Others might point to “CODA’s” ensemble award win from the Screen Actors Guild, an honor that has prefigured best picture upsets in the past, including “Crash,” “Shakespeare in Love” and “Parasite.” They might single out “CODA’s” adapted screenplay prize from the British Academy of Film and Television, which suggested stronger international support for the movie than expected. (“CODA” is a Gloucester, Mass.-set remake of a 2014 French film, “La Famille Bélier.”)

They might highlight still other factors from this season: a movie industry desperate for a feel-good winner in feel-bad times. A contest that somehow boiled down to the lesser of two evils, or streaming services, in which voters ultimately opted for the Apple+ release rather than allowing Netflix’s “Dog” to have its day. The toll of a so-called streaming revolution that ultimately benefited “CODA’s” televisual style and diminished the effect of “Dog’s” stunning compositions. (The irony of Netflix’s desperate lust for a best picture Oscar: It keeps pushing movies, such as “The Power of the Dog” and “Roma,” that demand to be seen in movie theaters.) A decreased emphasis on the kinds of historical precedents and statistics that would ordinarily have kept “CODA,” with just three nominations (neither of them for the crucial directing and editing categories), from being a serious threat. A late-breaking surge of enthusiasm for “CODA,” which more than a few voters probably didn’t even watch until close at the end of a monotonous, drawn-out awards season in need of a good shake-up.


Taking an even longer view, I’d say that “CODA” revealed its killer instincts when it first screened at the virtual Sundance Film Festival in January 2021 and came away with a startling four awards: three from the U.S. dramatic competition jury (the grand jury prize, a directing prize for Heder and an acting prize for the movie’s ensemble), plus an audience award. Even for those of us who liked “CODA,” the pile-on felt excessive, especially at a festival designed to showcase a broad spectrum of new work from up-and-coming independent filmmakers. “CODA” wasn’t even the strongest movie in a Sundance competition that also included “Passing,” Rebecca Hall’s luminous, quietly shattering drama of racial identity, which was shut out by the jury and received no nominations from the motion picture academy. That particular outcome — a heart-tugging crowd-pleaser prevailing over a more artful, more austere movie — seems to have presaged “CODA’s” fateful showdown with “The Power of the Dog.”

I want to tread cautiously here, lest I fall into the kind of reductive logic that positions “CODA” as a heart movie and “The Power of the Dog” as a head movie, or that suggests the academy is always predisposed toward one over the other. Thinking and feeling aren’t mutually exclusive activities, and what moves us — or stimulates our brains — is profoundly subjective. Some of the academy’s most inspired recent best picture winners — I’m thinking especially of “Moonlight,” “Parasite” and “Nomadland” — are reminders that the cinema of ideas and the cinema of throat lumps can go hand in hand. They’re also reminders that there are all sorts of ways in which emotion can sneak up on you in a movie, beyond simply steamrolling over you in the final stretch.

That’s my way of saying that although I liked and was moved by “CODA,” I don’t think it’s a great film or even remotely one of the year’s best movies. It’s a sweet, well-acted, shrewdly calculated, cinematically rudimentary drama that means to empty the viewer’s tear ducts at all costs, and on that score it is wildly successful. I wept at those final scenes like everyone else; I’m not made of stone, even if I’m still wondering how fairly and plausibly the movie dramatizes its Deaf principals, fully inhabited though they are by Troy Kotsur (who won the supporting actor Oscar), Marlee Matlin and Daniel Durant. Their relationships with the story’s 17-year-old protagonist, Ruby (Emilia Jones), sheds forceful light on the experiences of Deaf families. Amid the acclaim for a movie that strives to boost Deaf visibility, however, those relationships have also raised their share of criticisms from Deaf journalists and audiences.

Is there something narrow and inaccurate in “CODA’s” conception of Deaf characters who can’t appreciate music beyond stereo-rattling hip-hop? Or who seem to rely exclusively on their hearing daughter and sister to a degree that strains credulity in a story that, as many have noted, seems to ignore the provisions of the Americans With Disabilities Act? I’m not the one to weigh in on those criticisms, except to point them out as a useful reminder that no underrepresented community is a monolith. And no movie can or should be a comprehensive representational ideal.

“The Power of the Dog,” as it happens, has also drawn its share of complaints on representational grounds. I know more than a few movie critics who consider Campion’s movie a deeply homophobic, regressive depiction of masculine mores in 1925 Montana. At the opposite extreme, we’ve all heard plenty from Sam Elliott, who surely and depressingly speaks for many when he rejects the movie for injecting queer subtext (or even just plain text) into the hallowed ground of the American western. If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’re reminded of “Brokeback Mountain,” another movie that could be classified, however simplistically, as a “gay western.” And like “Power,” “Brokeback” wound up losing the best picture Oscar to an underdog — “Crash,” in that case — that struck an emotional and representational chord with academy voters.

Those comparisons are striking, if also misleading. I’d like to think the academy is a more sexually diverse, less homophobic institution than it was 15 years ago, and I have little doubt that “Brokeback Mountain” would win, and rightly so, if we were to relitigate the 2005-06 Oscar race today. If anything, “The Power of the Dog” lost not because it’s a gay romance, but because that romance is so perversely and powerfully sublimated within a patient, exacting, rug-pulling, genre-bending story — one that Campion, working from Thomas Savage’s 1967 source novel, has assembled and retooled with puzzle-box precision. As someone who found “The Power of the Dog” a malevolently seductive experience, tragic and haunting and viscerally gripping on multiple viewings, I don’t know what to say to viewers — and I know they are legion — who found it slow, boring or devoid of emotion. Campion’s movie speaks to the head, no question. I’d suggest it also engages the heart in ways that are subtler, more mysterious and more disciplined than a lot of academy members clearly had patience for.


So, for that matter, did several of this year’s other best picture nominees. Whether history will favor “CODA” as a best picture winner remains to be seen, though I think it will smile on both Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” and Guillermo del Toro’s “Nightmare Alley,” two lavish, gorgeously made pictures that have yet to fully find their audiences, but which nonetheless renew the promise of motion pictures as a popular medium. And I suspect it will prove kindest of all to Ryûsuke Hamaguchi’s magnificent “Drive My Car,” which was relegated to just one expected win, for international feature, despite its richly deserved nominations for best picture, director and adapted screenplay. Like all the best movies, recognized as such or not, it transports us into a space where thinking and feeling are one and the same.