Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog review by Juliette Salom

Jane Campion’s long-awaited Netflix-backed feature film The Power of the Dog has quietly trotted both into theatres and onto the streaming platform; the storms of dust it will leave in its wake after watching it, however, will be more similar to that from a stampede of the wildest and most ferocious beasts. A director known for a cold vastness in her characters as much as is echoed in the environment they inhabit, Campion’s newest cinematic epic of western dramatics familial power trips is sure to confuse you of which cowboy to root for.

Starring the arresting Benedict Cumberbatch, with real-life married couple playing on-screen married couple, Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons, as well as Australian kid Kodi Smit-McPhee, this American-set New Zealand-filmed production was one of the few that was able to continue during the hardest hit months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Set on a dusty ranch in the great North West America, the film convincedly turns the ragged slopes of New Zealand, where the film was shot, into the treacherous Montanan mountains the story demands. The isolation that New Zealand had to offer from the rest of the world was not only accommodating for pandemic-related reasons during production in 2020. The benefit of the beauty of seemingly untouched land, as evidenced in the rolling hills and tsunamis of grass plains that fool us into believing its 1920s Montana, meant that Kiwi local Jane Campion needed not venture far, let alone leave her home country, to visualise the story she needed to tell.

A story of a beguiling man and the torment he subjects to his brother’s new family, The Power of the Dog works with material from the book of the same name by Thomas Savage. With Cumberbatch in the lead, playing the charismatic but volatile Phil Burbank, the actor’s dedication to the craft brings forth the sense of fear from his audience that he posits in his peers. Staying in character for the entirety of filming, Cumberbatch became Burbank, and The Power of the Dog became nothing short of reality. Like the pied piper of Montanan cowboys, Burbank struts through dust storms and between brumbies, leading a troupe of obeying schoolboy-like men, eager to please their master.

Through windows and doorways, arches and frames, the use of space and the lack thereof it is something Campion toys with throughout, and something that was significantly important to the construction of the film’s set design. The Burbank mansion, the house that the story is set in and around, was designed and built especially for the purpose of the film. Catching characters’ eyelines through staircases and blocking movements like a dance, Campion was able to assert full control over her creative vision by starting from the ground up and building the environment around her story.

The house is one of the few buildings that crowd little space in The Power of the Dog, for it’s the vast plains of rolling hills that steal the show. From wide open vistas to the dust storms of Montanan mountainsides, the land that surrounds is as much a character as the Burbanks themselves. This film is as wide as it is deep, the detail in the landscape as fine as the beguiling look in Cumberbatch’s eyes. To see every angle, every inch of Campion’s carefully controlled chaos, one would be best to see it all on the big screen.

With a brief overlap of the traditional theatrical run and the streaming service release of the film, the method in which The Power of the Dog reaches eyeballs is yet another look into the future of post-pandemic cinema. Once upon a time cinemagoers and filmmakers alike could not in their wildest dreams imagine such a short window between theatrical release and availability of a new film on a streaming platform. But then again, once upon a time we all could not imagine in our wildest dreams a pandemic causing havoc on our world for almost two entire years.

Cinema snobs and film fanatics will tell you Campion’s film is best served in cinema. But the accessibility that Netflix provides, the ease and comfort and mere convenience of not being tempted to forfeit a mortgage in exchange for a café grandé chop top at the cinema candy bar, is not to be underestimated. Netflix may not be considered the best way in which to watch a film, especially one as vast and expansive as Campion’s, but it is undeniably the easiest. Either way, The Power of the Dog needs to be seen, at the end of the day it need not matter how.

Feature Image Courtesy: Netflix

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