The Power of the Dog +
Jane Campion in Conversation

New Zealand/Australia 2021, 126 mins
Director: Jane Campion

Jane Campion in conversation with Noah Baumbach, presented in partnership with Directors UK.

‘They didn’t know who the hell they were any more, the young fellows – cowhands or moving picture people.’ So complains Montana rancher Phil Burbank in Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel The Power of the Dog, set in 1925. By that point, a kid might model himself after a movie character more than any cowboy in living memory. (‘A fellow name of W.S. Hart had got to be sort of their God,’ Savage writes of the silent-screen star.)

These lines aren’t in Jane Campion’s pulse-thrumming adaptation, but the concerns over masculinity and wearing the trousers (or the chaps) definitely are. ‘What kind of man would I be, if I did not help my mother?’ intones the opening voiceover, which, like much else in the movie, passes by our defences under a familiar guise only to settle deep into our bones.

The Power of the Dog presents as a ranch family feud in the making, not an uncommon set-up in the American western (see The Big Country, 1958). But it’s all in the way Campion moves us through the psychodrama, coiling its grip tighter ever so gradually. Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) rides herd over a thriving cattle ranch with his stolid brother George (Jesse Plemons), sharing the well-appointed lodge-like house left behind by their city-bound parents.

When George takes a liking to a widow, Rose (Kirsten Dunst, played with aching brittleness), who runs a small hotel, Phil feels their tight-knit fraternity threatened. He directs his cruel ire toward Rose and the boy he dubs ‘Miss Nancy’: her willowy, bookish son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee, winning in his ungainly awkwardness and resembling a young Martin Landau).

George’s bearish kindness toward Rose, no doubt the first woman he’s ever loved, much less courted, leaves a warm glow. But though they marry and she moves in with the brothers, domestic bliss is elbowed aside by Phil’s alpha-dog campaign of torment. Under their valley’s big-sky brightness – so bracingly rendered by cinematographer Ari Wegner – there’s no escape for Rose (who’s first introduced obliquely, mopping).

Much of Jane Campion’s work (The Piano, 1993; the thankfully rediscovered In the Cut, 2003) has opened a Pandora’s box of sexual desire in search of shape and outlet, but The Power of the Dog at first seems set on diminishing true selves. A shamefaced Rose dives into depressive drinking – a tad precipitously in Campion’s screenplay – while Peter looks destined to become an outcast with his stalking about and vivisection studies. (Thomasin McKenzie’s vanishingly small role as a kitchen servant includes getting an unfortunate glimpse of Peter’s ex-pet bunny.)

But as Phil childishly acts out about his brother actually growing up, he’s also slowly self-destructing in his own fashion. With a suggestiveness more direct than earlier forays into the mythic West, the film orchestrates another kind of archetype in Phil: a man desperately trying to tamp down his sexuality by putting up a rough front to all around him. Cumberbatch summons Lee Marvin’s brash magnetic voice in creating a cowboy who’s know-it-all yet deeply confused, as he idolises an old friend, Bronco Henry, who was so perfect and manly it hurts.

The camera lingers on Phil rubbing down Bronco’s saddle, and communing with his memories with a bath in his Lawrentian secret place, a pond behind a thicket. Elsewhere Campion dots the film with earthy close-ups or hard edits (blood droplets on wheat, cattle castration); actual human touch is used sparingly and powerfully.

Where it all ends up feels at once cathartic and surprising, a denouement readable as lurid poetic justice and profound tragedy (our ears somehow pricked along the way by the odd high horns in Jonny Greenwood’s score). Palpably curious about this environment, Campion again perches us on an edge of civilisation, as in The Piano (indeed, a piano proves central to Rose’s struggles), one that is more secure yet stricken with its own unresolved tensions and violence.

An early interior pan, tracking the world outside the Burbanks’ house through its windows, is echoed later on in a way that underlines how Campion has drawn out the instability at the heart of the American West’s handed-down myths of projected authority and all-consuming (yet often weirdly chaste) machismo. While the resolution of The Power of the Dog puts a lid on things in a way many past Campion movies don’t, it’s a most welcome return to feature-filmmaking for her after two seasons of Top of the Lake arcs.
Nicolas Rapold, Sight and Sound, December 2021

Directed by: Jane Campion
Production Companies: See-Saw Films, Bad Girl Creek, Max Films
In association with: Brightstar
Presented: NetFlix
In association with: New Zealand Film Commission, Cross City Films, BBC Film
Executive Producers: Simon Gillis, Rose Garnett, John Woodward
Produced by: Jane Campion, Tanya Seghatchian, Emile Sherman, Iain Canning, Roger Frappier
Co-producers: Libby Sharpe, Chloe Smith
Line Producer: Chloe Smith
Developed with the Assistance of: Michelle Pearce
Unit Production Manager: Moira Grant
Key Production Coordinator: Linda Fenwick
Financial Controller: Steven McKinnon
Post-production Accounting: Deborah Eastwood
Post-production Supervisor: Colleen Clarke
1st Assistant Director: Phil Jones
2nd Assistant Director: Renata Blaich
Script Supervisor: Kathleen Thomas
Casting: Nikki Barrett, Tina Cleary, Nina Gold
US Casting Consultant: Carmen Cuba
Associate Casting - New Zealand: Linda McFetridge
Written by: Jane Campion
Based on the book by: Thomas Savage
Script Consultant: Tanya Seghatchian
Dramaturge: Rachel House
Creative Dream Consultant: Kim Gillingham
Director of Photography: Ari Wegner
Splinter Unit Director of Photography: Grant Adams
A Camera Operator: Grant Adams
Steadicam Operator: Grant Adams
Gaffer: Thad Lawrence
Senior Lighting Technician: Warwick Millar
Key Grip: Sam Strain
Stills Photographer: Kirsty Griffin
Visual Effects Supervisor: Jay Hawkins
Visual Effects by: Alt VFX
Special Effects Supervisor: Brendon Durey
Editor: Peter Sciberras
Production Designer: Grant Major
Visual Design Consultant: Leonie Savvides
Visual Researcher: Phil Clark
Supervising Art Director: Mark Robins Art Director/On-set Art Director: George Hamilton
Art Director: Nick Connor
On-set Art Director: Matt Austin
Assistant Art Director: Yvonne Yip
Set Designer: Daniel Koene, Sarah Cathie
Set Decorator: Amber Richards
Set Dressers: Benjamin Whale, Gemma Richardson, Kirsten Nicholls
Concept Artists: Liam Beck, Polly Zee Walker
Property Master: Phred Palmer
Construction Supervisor: Joe Robert Moors
Costume Designer: Kirsty Cameron
Assistant Costume Designer: Emily Carter
Costume Supervisor: Alice Baker
Make-up and Hair Designer: Noriko Watanabe
Make-up Head of Department: Deirdre Cowley
Titles Designer: Peter Long
Original Music by: Jonny Greenwood
Music Supervisor: Andrew Kotatko
Choreographer: Ross McCormack
Sound Designer: Dave Whitehead
Production Sound Mixer: Richard Flynn
Boom Operator: Sandy Wakefield
Re-recording Mixers: Robert Mackenzie, Tara Webb
Co-supervising Sound Editor: Tara Webb
Supervising Sound Editor: Robert Mackenzie
Dialogue & ADR Supervisor: Leah Katz
Foley Artist: Mario Vaccaro
Foley Recordist: Alex Francis
Foley Mixer: Steve Burgess
Foley Editor: Steve Burgess
Stunt Co-ordinator: Mark Harris
Dialect Coach US: Joy Ellison
Dialect Coach New Zealand: Jim McClarty
Horse Master: Adrian Stent
Publicist: Tracey Mair

Benedict Cumberbatch (Phil Burbank)
Kirsten Dunst (Rose Gordon)
Jesse Plemons (George Burbank)
Kodi Smit-McPhee (Peter Gordon)
Thomasin McKenzie (Lola)
Genevieve Lemon (Mrs Lewis)
Keith Carradine (the Governor)
Frances Conroy (old lady)
Ken Radley (barkeep)
Sean Keenan (Sven)
George Mason (Cricket)
Ramontay McConnell (Theo)
David Denis (Angelo)
Cohen Holloway (Bobby)
Max Mata (Juan)
Josh Owen (Lee)
Alistair Sewell (Jock)
Eddie Campbell (Stan)
Alice Englert (Buster)
Bryony Skillington (Queenie)
Jacque Drew (Jeanie)
Piimio Mei (Sue Ella)
Edith Poor (Tanya)
Vadim Ledogorov (older man)
Julie Forsyth (Mrs Mueller)
Peter Carroll (old gent)
Alison Bruce (governor’s wife)
Karl Willetts (Bill)
David T. Lim (cook)
Adam Beach (Edward Nappo)
Maeson Stone Skuggedal (Edward Nappo’s son)
Ian Harcourt (undertaker assistant)

New Zealand/Australia 2021
126 mins

Courtesy of Netflix

Presented in partnership with Directors UK. Directors UK is the professional association of UK screen directors. It is a membership organisation representing the creative, economic and contractual interests of nearly 8,000 members - the majority of working TV and film directors in the UK.

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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