Venice 2021: Jane Campion's Dusty Western 'The Power of the Dog'
by Alex Billington
September 2, 2021
Award-winning Kiwi filmmaker Jane Campion returns with her first feature film in 12 years after Bright Star in 2009. The Power of the Dog is Campion's latest, a rough 'n tumble dusty western set in Montana (filmed in Australia) about a cowboy and his simple life on his ranch. At its core, the film is an astounding study of toxic masculinity and the effect it has on everyone else, beyond just the tough men who have grown into this culture. Campion adapts the novel of the same name written by Thomas Savage, telling a story the works as both a riveting big screen tale of cowboys, and a complex examination of the damaging power of this brutal toxicity. The film premiered early on at the 2021 Venice Film Festival and is also playing at every other major film fest this fall: Telluride, Toronto, and New York (watch the trailer here). I loved it through and through, even though I'm admittedly not the biggest fan of westerns, yet this won me over completely.
Set in the 1920s, The Power of the Dog plays like it's set a hundred years earlier in a totally different time. It feels like an old cowboy western drama, but it's set in a time and place that is still distant from all the other modernization happening around the world. This seems to be a reference to the fact that toxic masculinity is an archaic concept that somehow still lingers in contemporary times, much like how we're still dealing with it today despite society working hard to rid itself of misogyny and sexism. Benedict Cumberbatch stars as Phil Burbank, who runs a ranch out on the plains with his brother George, played by Jesse Plemons, driving cattle and selling hides. The story focuses on their strained relationship and what happens when George marries a woman named Rose, played by Kirsten Dunst, who runs a nearby tavern with her son Peter, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee. Phil doesn't care much for his brother, often calling him "fatso", and that feeling grows when Rose moves in and George starts spending more & more time away from the ranch.
The more I analyze the film, even in the process of writing this review, the more I discover about what it's commenting on and attempting to address – through the characters and all the dialogue and the story itself. I've been having some really great conversations about the film with friends & colleagues in Venice, digging into what it means, what Jane Campion shows, and everything else going in it. (I won't reveal in this review where it all leads.) I always really enjoy good discussions like this, that's what cinema is all about – different perspectives and different opinions reveal more about the impeccable filmmaking and studious storytelling. This is usually the mark of a great film, one you can discuss for days on end, and upon revisiting it pick up on more of what's happening. Campion's narrative in The Power of a Dog is a bit dry, or at least it seems so at first, as we try to make sense of and understand where it's all leading. Ultimately it touches on these dark demons in everyone, and the way they can ruin anyone if they never learn to address them in healthy ways.
My favorite aspects of Campion's The Power of the Dog are the score, composed by the marvelous Jonny Greenwood, and the stupendously gorgeous cinematography, shot by Australian DP Ari Wegner. It goes without saying that Greenwood is a musical genius and every score he creates is always unique and always innovative, with different sounds used throughout the film. Each track is as different as the last. As for the cinematography, every single shot is perfectly lit, perfectly composed, and compelling. There's at least two or three shots in particular that I can't stop talking about - I keep referencing them in conversations. One is when Phil and his cowhand boys walk into town, another is when the snow begins to fall on the ranch. These are some of THE best shots I've seen in any film this year. I'm one of these geeky cinephiles that needs great cinematography to completely fall in love with a film, and so many shots in this had me head over heels. They're never showy, just immersive enough to make us feel lost in this time and place with all these people.
There is no doubt that a film that focuses so heavily on toxic masculinity will be divisive, partially because this will likely frustrate some, but also because others might not be able to pick up on everything this film is saying. It's a ripple effect story, craftily showing how one vile man who is afraid to deal with his softer side causes others to break down and turn vile, too. Most of the characters in The Power of the Dog aren't really bad people, but the worst of them is brought out in this brutal situation with Phil. An important lesson for us to learn, even nowadays, even if we aren't driving cattle and walking around in cowboy chaps all day long.