The Power of the Dog is not Lassie Come Home—not by a long shot. It’s the work of Jane Campion, and the New Zealand director’s first film in 12 years. Over the weekend, it got a whistle-and-bells sendoff as the Centerpiece Selection of the 59th New York Film Festival. Campion and her stars—Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst and Kodi Smit-McPhee and cinematographer Ari Wegner—glittered up the premiere at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall and the after-party at Tavern on the Green. The Oscar buzz was deafening.
Based on a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, the film takes place on Montana’s diminishing frontier of 1925, but the resourceful Ms. Campion managed to film it on her home turf. “Of course, I did go and see the landscape on Savage’s actual ranch, and that’s amazing,” she confessed at a press conference prior to the premiere. “But not as amazing as the hills in the Ida Valley of New Zealand where we filmed. They could stand in for almost anywhere—Middle Earth, [New Zealand] or Switzerland or Montana.”
Visually, the film recalls the landscapes of director George Stevens, particularly the tiny frontier town sprouting up, isolated, in the vast Wyoming wilderness of Stevens’s Shane, or the majestic ranch-house rising improbably out of the Texas flatlands in his Giant.
There’s a distant echo of Giant in the driving domestic conflict of The Power of the Dog has a distant echo of the Edna Ferber novel Giant, albeit with a notable gender switch. In Stevens’s film, Luz Benedict (Mercedes McCambridge) rules the roost of Reata Ranch—until her brother (Rock Hudson) brings home a bride (Elizabeth Taylor). From that point on, it is literally a duel to the death.
In Campion’s tale, Luz Benedict becomes Phil Burbank (a riveting, virtually unrecognizable Cumberbatch), a swaggering, fiercely closeted sadist who rides roughshod over his lowly cowhands as well as his mild-mannered brother, George (Jesse Plemons), with whom he owns a sprawling Montana spread. Into this unrelentingly macho world, George introduces Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a widow he has married, and her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a teenager way too tenderfoot-ish for the environment. After some opening rounds of antagonism, Phil decides to take the boy under his wing, with the dual idea of making a man of him and driving his mother deeper into drink. A subtle turn of events resolves these tensions in a tragedy that may surprise you.
Campion’s mother-in-law presented the filmmaker with Savage’s novel just as a gift, and Campion read it with no intention of turning it into a film, but she found the book “haunting” and “thrilling” enough to start pursuing the movie rights. “It’s clearly a complex way of approaching masculinity, setting it on a ranch where the values of masculinity are highly valued. There are some surprises about what people are keeping secret. I think it gave such a great sort of container for studying and thinking and rethinking about the men in this world.”
Cumberbatch seconded that motion. “I always hope, in adapting a book, that one of the offshoots might be that people pick it off the shelves and rediscover it or discover it for the first time,” he remarked. “It’s got this amazing terseness in it, this poetry, this kind of savage, violent beauty to it—and yet it takes incredibly complex themes in an era in which it was written in a deft way that rings very loudly to a modern sensibility. Savage can surmise a character in a line, a story in a page and a world in a chapter. It’s very beautiful writing.
“I carried the book around with me a lot. It was covered in dirt, and I was the annoying actor who was bringing it to set all the time. I was in character, so, of course, I was the annoying actor. It’s a masterful blueprint, as far as approaching the role—for me, anyway. I found it opened up a lot of understanding of Phil, all the complex building blocks that make him.”
The novel wasn’t Dunst’s primary source of information for Rose. “Jane added more to Rose, more richness that wasn’t on the page,” she said, “a little bit of the book, a lot of Jane and me, myself and I.” The actor playing her son found layers in the book and augmented that with “our own little secrets that we could create as motivations.” Amplified Dunst: “Kodi and I had the secret that he killed his father. That was our own creepy mother-son connection.”
Campion avoided using the term “toxic masculinity” to describe the story’s ambience. “You hear that phrase so much you begin to wonder if it means anything,” she contended. “I am really interested in both concepts of femininity and masculinity and how they play out in our lives because I believe it’s in everybody. We all have both. When we deal with alpha males, it’s painful. They’re so dominating. I am interested in that because I have to put up with it.”
The seven feature films that Campion directed before The Power of the Dog—among them, Sweetie, The Portrait of a Lady and In the Cut—were strong feminist statements . In 1993, The Piano made her the second woman ever to be nominated for an Academy Award as Best Director. Her original screenplay for that picture and two of her actresses (a mute Holly Hunter and 11-year-old Anna Paquin) earned Oscars.
Campion does count this new film as a departure. “It’s almost like a bookend,” she said. “You can look at The Piano clearly looking from a much more feminine perspective. I see this new film as a bookend of another large landscape piece film, exploring another kind of masculine myth, and Savage helped me find a piece that I could feel really happy in. It took me a little bit to find my feet in it. Also, I did a lot of psyche and dream work to help me really explore that because I didn’t want to stand back from that. I wanted to really go in there and, from my point of view, try to imagine what Phil was feeling to be so suppressed.”
In casting the family unit that is at the heart of the film, Campion threw a global net, ensnaring Cumberbatch from England, Dunst from New Jersey, Plemons from Texas and Smit-McPhee from Australia. Miraculously, they somehow all fit together—until they don’t have to.
Cumberbatch was a no-brainer for Campion. “I just think he’s a really good actor. That means a lot to me. I was looking for somebody that can take on this part without worrying about what everyone will think of him playing a really cruel man. You need someone who wants that challenge. Also, I think that Benedict’s got this fantastic ability to show vulnerability.”
Of course, the role of Phil dictated that he pick up certain rustic skills to be convincing. “Whistling, whittling, horse-riding, roping, ranching, banjo-playing,” he enumerated before
adding as an afterthought, “And I got some acting in there. For me, it was about trying to time-capsule, I suppose—to try and imagine myself back into that world, which required a lot of subconscious work as well as conscious work, just sorta feeding the imagination over a long time. Jane gave me quite a lot of runway with this, which is a rarity in my life and a blessing for this role, because it was quite a sharp turn from a lot of the things that I have done before.
“I went to Montana. I did a sort of dude camp thing, which was great to get the dirt and the blood and the kind of sensation of what it must be like to be a body in that world doing that work with animals and people and that culture. A lot has changed since then, obviously.”
Dunst was on Campion’s radar because of “mesmerizing” performances she gave in Sophia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides and Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. The actress remembered that when she was in her twenties Campion had written her about working together. It was a note she saved till the day it finally happened. “Obviously,” Dunst said, “she’s one of my favorite filmmakers and someone whose films are always something that can inspire me as an actress with the type of work I’d like to do in my career. Jane has always been one of the people at the forefront of those kind of performances for women.”
Smit-McPhee was slow to realize that the role he was playing was as extremely layered as it actually was. “Originally,’ the actor recalled, “reading it, I wouldn’t have suspected that because he’s somewhat on a secret mission until the last ten pages when you can really see that he was something else, which is really what attracted me to the role. It had me reading the script immediately after the first time that I read it, just to go through and make sure that that’s what I just experienced with this character. So I saw there was a lot to play with and pull from, and it would be an extremely challenging role but a lot of fun as well.”
There is a mangy dog on the premises, but the film’s title actually refers to the rugged terrain. Director Campion and photographer Wegner went to considerable trouble thinking about the right places and showing a personal connection with the landscape in the film. For Wegner, “it was important to set up a sense of scale and insolation. By the time Rose arrives at the ranch, the viewer knows what kind of place it is and just how remote it is and how much trouble she’s in. She’s not going to get out of there in a hurry. That was my kind of way to set up the epicness, the scale, the brutality, the remoteness for that kind of very particular reason.”
Campion agreed with Wegner. “It did feel like these people were in the middle of an ocean, like they were so isolated in the landscape,” she said. “I think the hills are really sexy. I just do, all those faults and crevices hiding secret little strings and things. I’m in love with landscape in a very powerful way. It can get me trembling. It’s a chameleon. It’s like a landscape actor.”
“It is another character,” Cumberbatch chimed in. “Phil is the landscape. It’s in him. He brings the outdoors indoors. I had to literally lay on the earth for a while, just feel it, hear the grass, see the clouds move, feel the different temperatures. I did lots of that in Montana. It’s hugely important. It’s one of the only aspects in his life he has total control over—where he knows how to work the land and the people and the animals. To get that outdoorsy, that’s definitely a box tick as far as something that I have in common with my character. I love nature, and my immersion was key for me to find him. It was my ally. I felt it was something for nothing to have that as a backdrop. I was panicked about stepping out into a carpark in Oakland doing set work. It felt so natural being on that plane under the shadow of those hills.”
“The Power of the Dog” will be in select theaters on Nov. 17 and on Netflix Dec. 1.