The Power of the Dog (2021) is the latest movie of Jane Campion. It is based on the novel with the same title by Thomas Savage and stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPheeby.
The movie premiered at the 78th Venice International Film Festival and got Campion the Silver Lion for Best Direction.
Those of you who are not cinema nerds may not know Jane Campion since she is not very productive as a director nor that renowned.
Those of you who know her, it is probably because of the movie Piano from 1993. The Piano got eight Oscar nominations and won 3 of them – including Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen for Jane Campion, Best Actress in a Leading Role for Holly Hunter and Best Actress in a Supporting Role for Anna Paquin (who at the time was 11-12 years old).
For me the Piano is one of these movies that is very good in theory, and not that good in practice. Jane’s Campion’s directorial style at the time didn’t resonate with me. I think the movie is rather stiff, and scenes that should be very emotional remain disconnected from the viewers.
Thus, my expectations of the Power of the Dog were not that high, and I have to admit, I had my prejudice. It was not until the middle of the movie, I released that I couldn’t be more wrong. Jane Campion, who also wrote the screenplay, has created nuanced characters who are very real, complex and multi—dimensional. And, as a viewer you get to experience in full a range of emotions that connect you with them – from disgust, through pity, to even admiration. And you don’t get to experience the whole story all at once. Jane Campion builds the plot with such discipline that when all the pieces of the puzzle come together you are surprised and yet everything seems so logical.
Character interactions and dialogues are presented sparingly, yet they carry such an intensity. And the story is something you experience rather than just watch.
The story is set in 1925-ish in rural Montana. It is a strange time and place – at least for me as non-American – as from one side the movie looks like a 19th century western, while from the other we see automobiles, and Gatsby-like costumes. So, it is a kind of in-between era that already creates a very unique atmosphere.
In this setting we meet the two brothers Phil and George who are taking care of the family ranch. Well, the ranch man is actually Phill who is the roughest and toughest cowboy and leader of the ranch workers. He is loud, arrogant, rude and unforgiving. His brother is all the opposite – rather shy, polite and calm. Phill gets angry when George decides to marry the widow, Rose. He thinks she is only after their money and he decides to make her life miserable.
It is a seemingly simple movie, which, however, has a lot of depth. The main character of the story is Phill. He is that kind of person who has a constant need to prove himself by belittling everyone else around. He is rude even to his own brother, constantly demonstrating superiority and masculinity. The first time he meets Rose’s son Peter, he mocks his soft and feminine side to the point of making Rose cry. He is fearsome, cold and hateful. You dislike this character immediately. And as a viewer you can’t help to wonder what’s his issue. From the very first scenes of the movie, you know that there is an aspect of this man that you don’t see, a certain something, a hidden reason that explains his behavior.
I think here lies the whole mastery of this movie and the genius of Jane Campion – the reason why Phill acts this way is not hidden at all, it is all there in his lines, in all of the scenes. Jane Campion has managed to construct the story in such a masterful way that when you finally understand what is happening it comes as a surprise, yet at the same time makes so much sense as all the signs were there.
Masculinity, strength and power
Often in the movie Phill talks about his mentor, Bronco Henry, long gone, with respect and admiration. Phil met Bronco when he was a young boy and learned from him everything there was to know about the ranch life. It is not until two-thirds of the movie that we realized they actually had a romantic relationship. We realize now that Phill is carrying a mask, maybe overcompensating, always careful not to show any signs of weakness. In a very homophobic environment, he chose to blend in than to be comfortable whit who he was. And this creates such a strong conflict inside of him, that makes him feel deeply lonely and misunderstood. And it makes him act out, by demonstrating power over everyone else.
So, the movie really entangles when Rose’s son Peter comes to visit the ranch. He is a young adult, shy, skinny, unathletic, helpless, and not at all trying to hide his feminine side. Phill is initially cruel to the young man, when he suddenly decides to mentor him. He shows him around the raunch and even teaches him to ride a horse. Within these interactions the movie starts to take the shape of a story about strength and power, and we start to realize what those words really mean. Phil, seemingly the strongest male on the ranch, is also the loneliest one. He is the most unapproachable, disconnected, and portably the most unhappy and tortured from them all. Peter, owning who he is, looks harmless, a victim, a prey, yet he turns out to be the ones who dominate each situation.
Ultimately, I don’t think this is a movie about sexuality. It is about one’s relationship with one’s self. It is about denying or accepting all parts of yourself, and the pain you can carry by denying who you are. And, ultimately, it is about the power, both mental and physical, that comes from being true to yourself.
Screenplay and cinematography
What makes The Power of the Dog the perfect movie is the way that Jane Campion and her cinematographer Ari Wegner and crew tells the story.
Having watched thousands of movies, I am rarely surprised. Most of the movies that I see are either very predictable or something so sudden happens that makes complete no sense to the story. The way that Campion’s has built suspense in the Power of the Dog is remarkable. Every scene is so well constructed and it makes the perfect layer in this multi-layered story. From the opening lines through the whole movie there are so many hints which build up to a well-deserved culmination. Everything is so obvious, yet so subtle. And, at the end, as a viewer, you get the treat of the unpredictable finale, yet recalling everything that you saw, you are not surprised at all.
Considering the movie is based on a book, I can only imagine how difficult it was for Campion to decide which scene or line to take and which one to cut off. I can only congratulate Jane Campion for her attention to every detail. For each word said and unspoken. For everything that was shown and everything that was left hidden. Every scene had meaning to the story and was shot beautifully. With shots through the window or down to the gorgeous landscape, this movie is absolutely delightful.
Is it worth it?
The Power of the Dog is by far the best movie I saw in 2021. It is a movie about personal struggle, resentment, self-resentment and self-acceptance, identity, strength, understanding, and more.
Each scene is elegant and suspenseful, and it is a powerful reflection of the characters’ inner world. Every line is just at the right place. Each shot is masterfully directed and presented.