Please note: This film was screened at the AFI Film Festival in Hollywood and included a post-film Q&A with the cast and crew. It was the film’s red carpet premiere in Los Angeles.
HOLLYWOOD – The Power of the Dog is the first film in 12 years by Jane Campion, one of cinema’s greatest living directors. Campion is from New Zealand and is best known for The Piano in 1993, for which she won an Oscar at the Oscars and the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
This movie was worth the wait. The Power of the Dog is an intense and poetic tragedy set in the American West. The film’s focus on hidden identities and lost souls is based entirely on emotion and makes it accessible to audiences around the world. There is no prerequisite to be interested in westerns before watching this movie. You just need to be interested in a story of humanity and the deep pain that comes from not being authentic yourself.
The power of the dog is filled with performative masculinity. This is not surprising for a western, as the genre often features men performing their most masculine demeanor, often as a spectacle to the people around them. The interesting aspect is that the film features a predominantly female team and, as the director describes, they all collectively âgave birthâ to the film. Star Benedict Cumberbatch added he had “a lot of mothers on set.”
Cumberbatch is heartbreaking and phenomenal as the internal conflicting main character, Phil Burbank. He said it was âcathartic to express deep painâ through his performance. Indeed, pain can be felt through the screen, as Burbank is a tragic figure with unseen torment. Cumberbatch cites Campion’s impeccable leadership for helping him delve into his character’s submerged psyche. He described his performance as being a character he himself plays constantly and pretending to be someone he’s not.
Kodi Smit-McPhee’s character, Peter Gordon, isn’t one to hide who he is. In doing so, he is teased and mocked by the men in his community. Phil Burbank in particular is distressed by Peter’s presence as it represents an alternate version of himself who doesn’t hide who he really is. Peter is also a character who challenges and refutes traditional conceptions of strength and weakness. His surprising villainy is revealed by the film’s conclusion and matches the medical precision that befits someone aspiring to be a doctor.
Kirsten Dunst has experience portraying depression, and she still does here, managing to externalize a very internal feeling. The piano is featured in its story, seeming to be a nod to Campion’s most famous film, but in this case the piano doesn’t represent joy. Dunst is joined onscreen along with his real-life partner, Jesse Plemons, giving a fantastic performance, as expected of him.
The crew of this film were also integral to its creation. British band Radiohead’s composer Jonny Greenwood performed the haunting score. It is reminiscent of his other score for a study of dark alt-western characters: There Will Be Blood. His music creates an uncomfortable atmosphere. It contributes to the goal that the director, cinematographer, and editor had from the start. They wanted the audience to leave the theater speechless and with a mixture of conflicting emotions.
Although the film is masterfully directed, it is not for everyone. It’s a movie that creates an uncomfortable atmosphere and then builds a habitat and camps in that uncomfortable feeling. It sounds like the comedy subgenre known as âsqueaky humorâ and featured on popular shows like The Office. In this case however, Campion may have created a new genre: the “cringe drama”. This is an experimental film that challenges the traditional structure of storytelling and its audience along the way.
This film’s screening and Q&A took place at the famous TCL Chinese Theater as part of the American Film Institute’s annual international film festival. Actress Kathryn Hahn, who was not involved in the film, served as moderator for the panel. His enthusiasm for the film and the people involved brought great energy to the proceedings. During the Q&A, Hahn posed questions to director Jane Campion, cinematographer Ari Wegner, editor Peter Sciberras and actors Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee.
The title of the film comes from a Bible verse featured during the film: Psalm 22:20 – “Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog.” This beguiling verse is open to interpretation, especially in the context of this film. It fits perfectly into the poetic atmosphere of the film, most of which is equivocal. It’s an impossible movie to pin down, but it’s a thoughtful reflection on what it means to be authentic yourself. For this reason, it is applicable to all living people.
Bobby Styles studied film at UCLA and worked as an editor and producer on several film, commercial and music video projects in Los Angeles. He currently teaches intermediate and advanced video production courses at the Multimedia & Technology Academy at Monache High School. His column appears in The Recorder every Tuesday.