Even with stunning clarity, Jane Campion’s Oscar-winning Western remains enigmatic and challenging as ever
After a twelve-year absence, legendary director Jane Campion made a resounding return to feature filmmaking with The Power of the Dog, a brooding Montana-set Western brimming with psychological complexity and riveting tension. The film depicts a nuanced war of passive aggression between hard-edged rancher Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), his timid brother George (Jesse Plemons), and his fraying wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst), until her silent but shrewd son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) plots a subtle yet decisive scheme to put Phil’s reign of terror to an agonizing yet cathartic end.
While Campion is no stranger to piercing deconstructions of machismo across her film and television work, The Power of the Dog sees Campion directly confront one of pop culture’s most “masculine” genres in the American Western. A point of contention by some of Hollywood’s old guard (including a notorious condemnation by Sam Elliott), Campion’s depiction of frontier masculinity is one of sparse, hellish landscapes and equally savage emotions. The barren landscape provokes the characters to eventually lay bare the contrary personalities and desires that society previously encouraged they keep buried. Phil, despite fitting the total iconography of the straight American Cowboy, privately reckons with sexuality he cannot explore; instead, his desires find an outlet in ritualized cruelty. Whether it’s towards his family, taking advantage of how much authority he wields over George or the torment he can wreak on Peter and Rose; the easy command he wields over the men of his outfit; or the literal castration of the heads of cattle he’s built his fortune on for 25 years. His idolization of his former mentor (and possibly more), Bronco Henry, is as far as a man may have worshiped another in a socially-acceptable fashion at the time–at least, without seeming weak or Queer and thus vulnerable to rejection and persecution. With Phil, Campion skillfully dramatizes the hypocrisy at the heart of those who prize a stereotypical depiction of masculinity. In pinning down something as ephemeral as masculinity in order to conform ourselves to it — we risk sacrificing the parts of ourselves that truly define who we are.
But if “masculinity” in the context of what Phil prizes is a degree of strength and conviction with ever-increasing degrees of fragility, then Phil’s repulsion towards Smit-McPhee’s Peter can just as easily be defined as a battle of conviction. Despite going contrary to everything Phil prizes as far as appearances go, Peter never disguises or downplays these aspects of himself. He’s studious, silent, and slender. He’s quickly targeted by Phil for his lisp and apparent femininity. He’s a willowy waif who Phil expects can easily be broken. But where his mother Rose and father-in-law George find themselves to be quickly-crumbling targets when put at Phil’s mercy, Peter remains unwaveringly resolute in the face of psychological torture. In fact, it’s Phil’s underestimation of what Peter is capable of that leads to his downfall; it’s Peter’s keen awareness of how Phil manifests his masculinity that allows this David to finally topple a Western Goliath.
The West is full of mythic heroes brimming with heterosexual (or even sexless) vigor: from John Wayne across Stagecoach, The Searchers, and True Grit, to Clint Eastwood’s romance-spurning Man With No Name; their enemies in these films are often depicted as just as externally masculine, but with an obviously villainous, duplicitous edge. But Phil’s antagonist isn’t someone as brutish as him, nor does Peter even seek out being an enemy at all. What’s more, the duplicitousness at the heart of such Western villains can only be found within Phil himself–and it’s in the name of masking affections that may turn others against him. Peter’s own deception of Phil, ruthless in its coldness, could be argued to be born wholly out of necessity compared to Phil’s second-nature sociopathy; here, to protect Peter and his mother, who is pushed nearly to her breaking point.
With The Power of the Dog, Campion skillfully exposes each of the Western qualities audience once prized for the fragility they possess, and pointedly in a genre that once championed machismo’s unwavering stoicism amidst a period of torrential change. True strength isn’t in performative social appeasement or rebellion–rather, it’s in the strength of one’s convictions, in how much they can rebound and resist whatever form torture may take.
Criterion presents The Power of the Dog in 2160p 4K UHD and 1080p Blu-ray in its original 2.28:1 aspect ratio. The Video is sourced from the film’s original 4K digital master, presented in Dolby Vision HDR on the UHD disc. The Dolby Atmos audio track (downmixed to 5.1 surround for the DVD edition) was remastered from the digital master audio files. English SDH subtitles and an English descriptive audio track are provided for the feature film on both the UHD and Blu-ray.
As with Criterion’s other Campion UHD, The Piano, the vast landscapes and intricate production design of The Power of the Dog are stunningly realized in this 4K transfer, here delivered with consistent quality that reliably cuts the cord from the film’s previous exclusive release on Netflix. Individual textures of wood grain, animal fur, field brush, and leather are all well-realized with vibrant intensity. Cinematographer Wegner’s key usage of flame light and dark shadows is delicately handled without significant black crush or pixelized artifacting.
The film’s Atmos audio track creates an equally textured aural experience, prioritizing the plucks and thrums of Greenwood’s score in the bass and echoing horns balanced across as many speakers as the viewer has available. The overall mix, accompanied by the striking visuals, is quite immersive in a way few other releases on Criterion UHD are, making this the definitive release of Campion’s latest film.
All of Criterion’s Special Features can be found on the accompanying Blu-ray Disc.
- Behind the Scenes with Jane Campion (17:31): An archival experimental behind-the-scenes featurette driven by BTS footage, and Campion and cinematographer Wegner’s hand-drawn storyboards and reference photos. Campion provides candid narration throughout, and her driven, intimately collaborative direction with actors and crew is fascinating to watch.
- Reframing the West (28:14): A more traditionally-cut archival behind-the-scenes featurette of the making of the film, featuring talking-head interviews with cast and crew intercut with fly-on-the-wall production footage.
- The Women Behind The Power of the Dog (23:30): Filmmaker Tamara Jenkins hosts an awards-season roundtable with Jane Campion, producer Tanya Seghatchian, actor Kirsten Dunst, and cinematographer Ari Wegner, intercut with BTS footage. Topics include the origins of Campion and Seghatchian’s professional friendship, what brought each of them to Tom Savage’s novel, everyone’s preparation to tackle such challenging material, the difficulty of constructing a period-accurate 1920s Montana in Pandemic-era New Zealand, subverting stereotypical gender norms on a film set, and the importance of taking a film set seriously without taking oneself too seriously.
- Anatomy of a Score (13:25): Campion and composer Jonny Greenwood break down their approach to the sonic world of The Power of the Dog, broken into various instruments highlighted in the score. “The Cello” explores Greenwood’s methodology in playing the Cello “like a banjo.” “The Banjo” analyzes the instrument as a diegetic presence in the film compared to other score elements as well as within the historical context of the film. “The Piano” links the instrument to Rose’s fraying psyche, and its role in what Campion and Greenwood call the “ugly duet” between Rose’s piano and Phil’s banjo. Campion and Greenwood consider how horns bring out the loneliness and alienness of the Montana landscape in “The French Horn.” Overall, Campion praises Greenwood’s ability to repurpose and re-contextualize instruments in ways not traditionally used in classical film scores.
- Annie Proulx (13:18): In a new interview conducted by the Criterion Collection, the original author of Brokeback Mountain recounts how she became friends with The Power of the Dog’s author, Tom Savage. Proulx’s commentary on Savage’s novel further illuminates the complex themes behind both the source material and Campion’s adaptation. She also reveals key differences regarding what moments were omitted from the film version, notably a bit of tragic backstory between Phil and Peter’s father. There is also further commentary about other novels in the Western canon to contextualize Power of the Dog’s place within it.
- Trailer (2:09) for Netflix’s theatrical release of The Power of the Dog.
- Essay by critic Amy Taubin deconstructing The Power of the Dog’s earnest and nuanced exploration of masculinity, the struggle for dominance that domineers the film’s runtime, and Campion’s incisive directorial choices that deeply realize her characters’ vast inner worlds with economical precision.
The Power of the Dog is now available on 4K UHD, Blu-ray, and DVD courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
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