Study Guide: The Power of the Dog

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Academy Award–winner Jane Campion makes her much-fêted return to filmmaking with THE POWER OF THE DOG, a Western drama set in 1920s Montana starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Kodi Smit-McPhee. (Her 12-year hiatus was not an idle one—she spent most of the last decade on the television miniseries TOP OF THE LAKE. In an interview with The Guardian, Campion said: “I was so exhausted after TOP OF THE LAKE that I thought, ‘Oh my God, making a two-hour film seems like heaven.’”)

Campion’s filmography, diverse in genre and time period, is unified by her persistent interest in the psychology of her characters. An adaptation of Thomas Savage’s semi-autobiographical 1968 novel of the same name, THE POWER OF THE DOG focuses on Phil Burbank, a prominent cattle rancher whose cruelty ensnares his brother George’s new wife, Rose, and her teenage son, Peter. Campion admits:

“I was actually thinking of retiring before I did this film, but then I thought, ‘Oh man, this is gonna be a big one.’ I’d read the book and loved it and afterwards I just kept thinking about it. When I made a move to find out who had the rights, that’s when I knew it had got me. I needed to do it.”

A tense slow burn that amps up to an arresting conclusion, it’s best to leave the plot of THE POWER OF THE DOG vague for maximum effect. Just know that all elements are firing at full cylinder. Jonny Greenwood’s unsettling score is just one of his three major cinematic contributions in 2021, along with Pablo Larrain’s SPENCER and Paul Thomas Anderson’s LICORICE PIZZA. In this film, Greenwood truly soars, banjo and all. Likewise, Ari Wegner’s striking cinematography couldn’t be more different from ZOLA, the other release this year that she photographed. Of prepping with Campion for a year in advance of production, Wegner says: “When Jane Campion calls you and says she wants to make a film with you, the rest of the world kind of disappears.” And in a film where much is communicated nonverbally, it’s Peter Sciberras’s editing that elevates the picture—let’s just say it will make you see flies on horses in a whole new light.

Campion is perhaps best known for her 1993 film THE PIANO, which won three Academy Awards and the Palme d’Or (shared with FAREWELL MY CONCUBINE) Campion considers THE POWER OF THE DOG to be a masculine companion piece to THE PIANO: Just as that film explored repression and sexuality through the lens of femininity, THE POWER OF THE DOG takes an unflinching swan dive into the same with Campion’s first male lead. It’s a career-best performance by Cumberbatch, who went method for this role at Campion’s urging, saying:

“I learned it all, including the various peripheral skills that Phil has in his life, including rope-braiding and taxidermy. It all helped put armour on the character, but what Jane gave me, above all, was time, which is an incredible luxury for an actor to have.”

But there are no weak performances in the film: Even Genevieve Lemon (also in THE PIANO and TOP OF THE LAKE) as the Burbanks’ maid, whose screen time is about 5 minutes total, is pitch perfect—listen for her morbid but hilarious story about a friend whose grave is desecrated.

And while many people might still think of BRING IT ON when Kirsten Dunst’s name is mentioned, her dynamic performance here is just the latest in a string of nuanced roles that have solidified her status as one of the most interesting actresses working today (Campion says of Dunst: “She’s my Gena Rowlands, and I mean it.”). In an interview with Kate and Laura Mulleavy (the sisters behind Rodarte who also directed her in their 2017 film WOODSHOCK) for The Cut, Dunst said:

“I’m director-driven—I’m not dying to play a specific person or a particular part because, ultimately, your performance is in the director’s hands; that’s all you have. [...] All I know is, Jane Campion, working with her is the shrimpiest* thing I could have ever done. It’s like literally being part of a jewel in her crown. I’m good. I did something important to me.”

*Note: Dunst and her friends refer to awards as shrimps—just read the interview.

THE POWER OF THE DOG is a visionary testament to Campion’s strong collaborations with her crew both in front of and behind the camera. Let’s hope it nets her some shrimps.

Other titles for your consideration, all available to rent at Movie Madness:

  • Campion cast Benedict Cumberbatch in part due to his sensitive performance in the miniseries PARADE’S END.
  • To further investigate the shifting power dynamics when a newcomer threatens the established order, check out PHANTOM THREAD (Paul Thomas Anderson) or THE BEGUILED (Sofia Coppola’s remake or, yes, the original by Don Siegel). Then watch this conversation between Coppola and Campion.
  • If you’d like to lose yourself in another of Kirsten Dunst’s performances as a woman on the edge, see MELANCHOLIA, Lars Von Trier’s character study of depression, and then be upset that she received no nominations.
  • Claire Denis’ BEAU TRAVAIL is certainly in conversation with Campion’s latest.
  • And of course, all of Campion's work can be found at Movie Madness in the New Zealand Directors section, including a VHS of her early short films (PEEL, winner of the Short Film Palme D’Or; PASSIONLESS MOMENTS; and A GIRL’S OWN STORY) and an out-of-print DVD of TWO FRIENDS–these two works are not easily accessible through streaming.

Sources:

"Dame Jane Campion: the power of the filmmaker" - RNZ

"Kirsten Dunst Doesn’t Need Your Oscars" - The Cut

"Cinematographer Ari Wegner on the Neon Intimacy of ‘Zola’ and Sun-Drenched Dread of ‘The Power of the Dog" - IndieWire

"Jane Campion: ‘Film-making set me free… it was as if I had found myself’" - The Guardian

"Jane Campion & Sofia Coppola on The Power of the Dog and Filmmaking Process" - NYFF59 (video)

"Q&A: Jane Campion and Kirsten Dunst, together at last" - AP

-- written by Destynee Norwood and brought to you by Movie Madness University, where movie lovers go to learn stuff™. For more details on Movie Madness University, as well as our upcoming classes, visit hollywoodtheatre.org/mmu.