This article is part of our 2021 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from this very strange year. In this entry, Will DiGravio explains our choice for Filmmaker of the Year: The Power of the Dog director Jane Campion.
Genre matters. And 2021 was a hell of a year for several of cinema’s most revered genres. Action movies and horror films saw one of the best line-ups in recent memory. Steven Spielberg’s superb musical debut introduced a new generation to West Side Story. Similarly, Guillermo del Toro offered his own take on a classic of film noir with Nightmare Alley. And then there is Jane Campion, who breathed new life into the venerated Western genre with The Power of the Dog. Campion’s masterful take on one cinema’s essential genres makes her our pick for 2021 filmmaker of the year.
Before I return to Campion, whose movie currently tops the awards leaderboards, I must first mention another director who made an elegant and ruminative Western. I speak, of course, of 91-year-old Clint Eastwood, whose adaptation of Cry Macho may very well be his final Western, if not his last film.
What a treat it was to watch The Power of the Dog and Cry Macho in close proximity to one another. To see Eastwood, an icon of the genre and the medium itself, walk and talk and dance with the kind of grace that comes from years spent behind and in front of the camera. To watch him embody the past, and thus the history of his art. And then to be absorbed by The Power of the Dog and reminded that the potential of the Western remains ripe. That it will exist as long as there are artists like Campion who take the raw materials of the genre and mold them into something singular and new.
In a sense, that same spirit can be found in the exhibition and distribution of the movie itself. The Power of the Dog, which is based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Savage and features a script by Campion, made its Netflix debut on the first of December. The streaming giant, which produced Campion’s film, has become a fixture in our year-end awards. In 2018, we named the corporation our filmmaker of the year. In 2019, the honor went to Martin Scorsese, who turned to Netflix for the resources and flexibility needed to make The Irishman.
The dichotomy of Netflix-as-producer often goes something like this: their limited or lack of theatrical release undermines the experience of true cinematic viewing; but, the tech giant, with its deep pockets, also allows for more artistic freedom. In a recent conversion with del Toro hosted by Variety, Campion said, “This film would not have been made if Netflix hadn’t stepped up and said, ‘We will take this risk.’”
We’re certainly grateful that Netflix greenlit The Power of the Dog. But the dark truth of the tech giant’s power over our culture must not be ignored. The production processes that brought The Power of the Dog to our screens mimic basically every other aspect of life in the current moment: big tech decides how, when, and what we consume.
But we must also celebrate the support Netflix hath given. A revisionist Western by one of the best directors of the last 30 years and a perfectly cast group of stars served as a much-needed tonic for moviegoers in 2021.
That yearning for bold and rich filmmaking is what drew Benedict Cumberbatch to the part of Phil Burbank. In the same Variety interview, Campion said Cumberbatch “had the hunger” to try something new, to grow as a performer. Cumberbatch’s Oscar-worthy performance continues the revisionist Western tradition of subverting the Classical Hollywood Western’s associations with normative masculinity and heterosexuality. He is hostile, dominating, abusive, and sexually and emotionally repressed in a way that leaves just enough room for empathy.
Phil’s dominance over his family’s ranch is upended after his brother, George (Jesse Plemons), marries a widow named Rose (Kirsten Dunst). When George pivots to domestic life and destroys their shared bachelorhood, Phil takes out his frustration on Rose. His abuse drives her to the bottle and mental degradation.
Campion’s depiction of domestic life and the oppression of Rose turns The Power of the Dog into a psychological thriller that echoes Gothic horror-romance films like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. One might think of Phil as the Mrs. Danvers to Rose’s “the Second Mrs. de Winter.” Dunst’s textured performance mirrors Cumberbatch’s in strength and form in its depiction of oppression, fear, and circumstance.
Rose fears Phil’s abuse. Phil fears his own sexuality. But because Phil is a man of property, he can lash out and verbally and physically assault whoever he pleases. Rose, a woman whose only means come by way of marriage, has no such option. She finds herself trapped.
All of Rose’s fears climax after her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) returns from college. At first, Phil and his male cronies mock Peter for his slender build and effeminate demeanor. But slowly, Phil and Peter form a bond as their sexual tension bubbles from subtext to text. Smit-McPhee delivers a crafty performance. We root for Peter. We fear for him. And we become exposed to the poorly-hidden truths of the ranch (his mother’s alcoholism, Phil’s sexuality) through his eyes. Yet at the movie’s end, he surprises us. He did not need us to worry. He can and does take matters into his own hands.
The subtleties of Plemons’ performance as George will go under-appreciated. He plays a mild-mannered gentleman who often sits at the edge of the frame. He knows much but says little. And he gives space for the traumas of Rose and Phil to play out on screen. But when our eye wanders to his face, we see him taking it all in. George absorbs the events as they transpire. His responses reaffirm our own experience as a temporary member of his family and world.
Campion’s ability to build complex worlds is a constant in her work. Whether it’s her depiction of a dark, manic New York City in In the Cut, or the harsh and oppressive world of New Zealand colonizers in The Piano, Campion is a master at constructing a space in which each of the film’s elements may gel. And The Power of the Dog is no exception. So much of the movie hinges on our understanding of the time and place in which it was set; of what it would be like to exist as Phil and Peter and Rose at that moment.
A New York Times profile details Campion’s intense preparation leading up to filming. She took numerous trips to the New Zealand mountains to study the light and weather across seasons, had Cumberbatch and Plemons waltz to learn the smells and rhythms of each other’s bodies, and visited “a Jungian dream analyst out of Los Angeles, hoping to more deeply connect with Phil’s psychology.”
The impact of such preparation on Campion’s filmmaking practice is not for me to say. But I will simply add that most filmmakers could spend years following Campion’s routines and have nowhere near the same result. Her genius is singular and found in her ability to know exactly how to stage and shoot her performers in the world she has created.
One feels the freshness of Campion’s take on the Western in the performances. These are people who wear different clothes and have lifestyles unlike our own, but they are just as human. Their struggles are just as real. Their relationships are just as complicated. And the oppression they face still remains. Their world becomes our own.
No one will applaud harder than me when and if Campion wins more awards. In all likelihood, she will become the first woman to be nominated for Best Director more than once. The optimist in me hopes that her success will mean her next project, like this one, can and will take whatever form she likes.
Let us also hope The Power of the Dog will lead to a significant revival of the Western genre. And, for that matter, the revival of the myriad genres that evoke the rich history of cinema. Campion’s work has the power and weight to show production companies why such “risks” can and should be taken. Without them, how is cinema to endure?
But if the movie doesn’t have that effect, that’s okay, too. Because gems like The Power of the Dog and the genius of Jane Campion are rare. And when they come along once in a while, they can be more than enough.