Blu-ray Review: Power of the Dog

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Jane Campion | CAST: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Geneviève Lemon, Kenneth Radley, Keith Carradine
RELEASE DATE: 11/8/22 | PRICE: DVD $14.99, Blu-ray $19.99, 4KUHD $24.99
BONUSES: Featurette containing interviews with cast and crew members and behind-the-scenes footage; interview with Campion and composer Jonny Greenwood about the film’s score; conversation among Campion, director of photography Ari Wegner, actor Kirsten Dunst, and producer Tanya Seghatchian; new interview with novelist Annie Proulx.
SPECS: R | 128 min. | Drama | 2.28:1 | Dolby Atmos

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall 

The most impressive aspect of Power of the Dog is its oblique approach to its subject matter. On the surface, it’s a Western, but as it moves on, layers are peeled away and we learn much about the four lead characters — three of whom have secrets that are gradually revealed to the viewer.

The film starts off as brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons) complete a cattle drive. Phil is a gruff cowhand (who sounds older but is still young and athletic); George is the businessman of the two, who conceals all his emotions. They celebrate the drive with their ranch hands at a home-eatery owned by Rose, a widow (Kirsten Dunst), who relies on her prim and proper son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to help her with her customers. George winds up marrying Rose, ignoring Phil’s protests that she is a gold-digger.

From that point on, three of the characters begin a transformation in the eyes of the viewer. Phil’s secrets are revealed throughout the picture: firstly, that he and George are quite wealthy and aren’t scrounging-for-cash cowhands, like their workers; secondly, Phil was Phi Beta Kappa in college and is quite well-educated; and, lastly, that his relationship with his mentor, a certain “Bronco Henry,” was clearly a gay connection about which neither man spoke. The last secret is the crux of the film (which was based on a novel by Thomas Savage), and Campion reveals it by implication and “stolen moments” that we alone see — although Peter begins to understand as time moves on.

Writer-director Jane Campion, who won the Oscar for Best Director for Dog, has specialized in making films that depict subdued emotion and how it is handled by individuals in different circumstances. Her last theatrical film before Power, Bright Star (2009) is about the romance between the poet Keats and the woman he was in love with in his last years. The film not only contains no sex between the lovers but also never shows the lovers (who are engaged) kissing. Her films place us within the lead characters’ perspectives as they keep their emotions tightly under wraps in their public (and even familial, as in her great debut feature Sweetie) relationships.

Here she initially presents the trappings of a Western but makes sure to contrast the 20th-century elements that are part of the characters’ lives (cars, a player piano, even a hula hoop) with the 19th-century cowboy persona (which Phil has perfected and which he is willing to impart aspects of to Peter). The success of Campion’s two Top of the Lake miniseries might have been one of the selling points for Netflix to produce Dog; one can be happy, though, that the resulting film is pure Campion (with the possible exception of the penises that are ridiculously hidden during the nude bathing sequence that features the cowhands).

The four principal actors work together beautifully to convey the subtexts in the characters’ relationships. Dunst wonderfully conveys Rose’s embarrassment at suddenly becoming part of a family that she feels is judging her, while Plemons (Dunst’s real-life husband) plays the “weaker” brother who finally reaches adulthood (read: the ability to tell his brother as he’s acting out, “That’s enough”) after he marries Rose.

Smit-McPhee is all gawky awkwardness, but it’s clear that Peter, unlike Phil, is okay with his own “secret” proclivity (again, never spoken in the dialogue, but conveyed in imagery). Cumberbatch has the most complex role and lends genuine feeling (amidst all the emotional repression) as the character who seems the most genuinely sure of himself, but is in fact a creation of his own imagination.

The only original video supplement in the package is an interview with Annie Proulx, the author of Brokeback Mountain, who admires the writing of Thomas Savage and provides a pocket history of the Western archetypal hero in American fiction. She declares that Larry McMurtry’s cowboy novels of the Sixties (all written before Dog the novel came out in 1967) must’ve influenced the openly gay Savage, but that he took the character of Phil in a new direction. She praises the novel as a “difficult, beautiful book” and describes the changes that Campion made to the characters, including toning down Peter, who is “coldly vicious” in the novel.

Proulx praises Campion for finally getting Savage’s “never widely read” work an audience and for the way in which the director captured the novelist’s sense of the atmosphere and emptiness. She praises both the book and film as capturing an “aching solitary angst” located in the expanses of the American West, “full of… long vistas, rocky terrain, [with] nothing to break the monotony.”

Campion speaks with composer Jonny Greenwood about his score for Dog in another supplement. Greenwood speaks about the ways in which he used instruments to speak for certain characters and how the opening piece of hypnotic strumming was created. He explains that the instrument he used was not a guitar, it was a cello. He learned to play it in a finger-picking style and what it created, he says, was the “nice confusion of it being a sound you recognize, but it’s not a style that you’re familiar with. So it’s familiar and unfamiliar at the same time.”

A Netflix-created supplement features an interview with Campion and on-set footage. She notes that, to get inside of the psyche of Phil — whom she says “can only love safely in the past” — she consulted a “dream worker” to explore the character’s motivations. During this process she found a recovered memory of a “vicious nanny” who beat her and her sister; in this way she connected with Peter’s initial bullying by Phil.

A 30-minute making-of video, also produced by Netflix, features short interviews with all of the major cast and crew members. Every aspect of the shoot is explored, including the location shoot in New Zealand, standing in for Montana. Campion describes herself jovially as “a ‘thorough-ist,’” and her colleagues confirm that she has her eye on, as Dunst describes it, “every little detail.”

Cumberbatch talks about learning how to rope, ride, and braid rope to play Phil. Campion summarizes the character as being “in [the] impossible situation of being the alpha man who is homophobic and is actually homosexual.”

An informal 2021 chat with the principal women involved in the film starts out as a mutual admiration society but before long produces some interesting background info, including the fact that, according to Dunst, Rose was an underwritten character in the original novel, but Campion took care to flesh her out.

Cinematographer Ari Wegner discusses the look of the film, noting that the low-key color scheme was offset by the bright colors worn by Rose. She adds that she and Campion had decided that there should be no “emotionally manipulative camerawork,” and she stresses that long lenses created the eye-catching wide shots in the film in which characters or objects in the foreground and background were all perfectly in focus.

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About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”