Jane Campion | The Power of the Dog

“A man’s made by patience and the odds against him.” – Phil Burbank, The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog is a 2021 Western psychological drama film written and directed by Jane Campion. It is based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same title. The film stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Shot mostly within rural Otago, the film is an international co-production between New Zealand, Greece, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Australia. The Power of the Dog covers themes such as love, grief, resentment, jealousy, masculinity, and sexuality. Source

The Power of the Dog was the darling of the film festival circuit, collecting awards from San Sebastian Film Festival, Venice Film Festival, and the Toronto International Film Festival.


In early 2017, Jane Campion, having just finished filming the second season of Top of the Lake, received a copy of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel The Power of the Dog from her stepmother, Judith. Campion was enthralled by the book and began hunting for its film rights. She and producer Tanya Seghatchian eventually obtained the rights from Canadian producer Roger Frappier after meeting up with him at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Source

While working on the script, Campion maintained correspondence with author Annie Proulx, who penned the afterword to a 2001 edition of Savage’s novel. After completing her first draft, Campion visited Savage’s ranch in Montana, met with members of his family (the author had died in 2003) and consulted with an expert on Savage from the University of Montana Western in Dillon. Campion was unable to film in Montana due to budget concerns, and opted to shoot in her native New Zealand instead. Source


The Power of the Dog stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank, a charismatic, super-macho rancher living in the sprawling landscape of Montana in 1925. Phil is distressed by his brother’s marriage to a local widow, Rose (played by Kirsten Dunst), and his disapproval of the union weighs heavily on Rose and Phil’s brother George, but the greatest victim of Phil’s wrath is Rose’s son, Peter. A gentle spirit and a maker of paper flowers, Peter becomes Phil’s whipping boy and suffers the greatest outpouring of Phil’s torment until Peter discovers Phil’s greatest secret and their relationship changes dramatically. Source

Campion and her cinematographer Ari Wegner write whole character studies in their close-ups. From this perspective, we get a sense of what the cast may never verbalize. It’s in the pained and panicked look on Rose’s face when she begins drinking after another round of Phil’s harassment. It’s in the steely glares Peter shoots Phil when he’s being picked on. It’s in George’s downward gazes at the floor, knowing he is helpless to stop his brother’s torments. It’s in the rage on Phil’s face as he realizes his tight-knit relationship with his brother is coming to an end with George’s marriage to Rose. It’s an approach Campion has used in her earlier works like “An Angel at My Table” and “The Piano,” the latter of which follows a main character, Ada (Holly Hunter), who cannot speak, but uses her face and sharply gestured sign language to get her point across. There is no doubt when Ada has something to share in “The Piano,” and through Phil’s movement, body language and reactions, Cumberbatch also speaks volumes with every scowl and every defiant smile. Source

Many of Campion’s movies also focus on shifting power dynamics between characters: who has power, who loses it, and how they gain it back. Sometimes, this is in the form of women fighting to be heard, like in “Sweetie” or “Bright Star.” But in “The Power of the Dog,” Rose’s entrance into the family is perceived as a threat, a challenge to established order. Phil extends her no kindness, slyly creating a toxic environment that poisons her, in order to retain power over his brother, their business and who is in charge around their stately mansion. She’s like an existential threat to him: she represents the sex he doesn’t desire and someone he doesn’t yet have under control. The truce between Phil and Peter unnerves Rose more, afraid of the influence he may have on her son. She loses herself in the bottle, just as Peter stands up to Phil’s bullying. It’s a riveting dance between them all, waiting to see how it all will end once the music stops.Source


Campion recruited Jonny Greenwood to compose the score for The Power of the Dog. Greenwood wanted to avoid the “sweeping strings” typical of Westerns, opting instead to use atonal brass sounds in order to emphasize the “alien, forbidding” nature of the film’s landscapes. He was not satisfied with the sound of Phil’s banjo on screen and, as an alternative, took to play the cello like a banjo on his own, using the same fingerpicking technique. The resulting sound, according to Greenwood, was “a nice confusion” and “a sound you recognize, but it’s not a style that you’re familiar with.” As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the gathering restrictions in place, Greenwood was unable to work with an orchestra and had to record much of the cello parts on his own, layering them to achieve an orchestral texture.Source

 Jonny Greenwood’s work underlines and emphasizes many of the actions playing out on-screen. String compositions twist and turn as sharply as the movie’s plot, like a jagged undercurrent pulling our emotions in certain directions. The sounds of sweet violins sour, while softer notes swell into intense waves. The changes are quick, a nod to the tense dynamics between the brothers, the widow, and her son. Many of the songs use plucked strings to create an air of uneasy anticipation, as if cantering into danger. Rows of violins join in to heighten this uneasy feeling, almost awakening our fight or flight response. The music doesn’t stray too far from the prototypical Western sound yet adds these extra layers of foreboding throughout. Source

After releasing in theaters in mid-November of 2021, The Power of the Dog film is now available to stream on Netflix. If you’re ready to saddle up for a slow ride, The Power of the Dog‘s great acting and interesting ideas make the journey worthwhile. Source

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