4K Review: Criterion Harnesses THE POWER OF THE DOG For a Stunning Release
Jane Campion’s revisionist Netflix Western stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Jesse Plemons.
Has any director in recent memory filmed an actor with the kind of palpable fascination with which Jane Campion films Benedict Cumberbatch?
Yes, his The Power of the Dog antagonist is a true scoundrel and a terrible bully in the potently toxic sense. Just ask Kodi Smit-McPhee’s character, the gentle-born teenage son of Kirsten Dunst’s hardworking inn owner at the twilight of the American frontier (Montana, 1925, to be precise). But Cumberbatch imbues the character with a certain je ne sais quoi… something that transcends the character beyond the level of mere villain.
Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. All the performances are simply excellent. The perfect cast melds on screen to promote an uneasy entrancement, all collectively in service of a filmmaker at the top of her game. While the Oscars denied this fresh take on the Western its rightful Best Picture of 2021 award (the grudge Hollywood bears against Netflix’s streaming models likely cost the film the big prize), Criterion has stepped up to honor The Power of the Dog in its own indominable way.
Campion understands that cinematically, you just can’t beat a beautifully shot Western. Cinematographer Ari Wegner utilizes every facet of the arid New Zealand wilderness as it oneirically doubles for the rural, unsettled American northwest of 100 years ago. There’s a profound loneliness in the untouched rock faces (look closely) and rough-wood domesticity.
The tension baked into that aesthetic (a classic one, subtly reinvigorated) is actively borne out in the unforgettable characters of seething, perpetually filthy cattleman Phil Burbank (Cumberbatch) and Peter Gordon (Smit-McPhee), the tidy, slender teenage son of Rose (Dunst). Peter, who dutifully helps his mother keep house -- he’s particularly fond of crafting decorative roses from paper -- is immediately targeted by the wealthy but coarsely verbose Phil for not at all living up to the already culturally codified notions of rugged Western masculinity.
Very much along those lines, Shelagh Rowan-Legg, in her Montreal Nouveau 2021 review of the film for ScreenAnarchy in October of 2021, wrote: “Jane Campion's first feature film since 2009, The Power of the Dog (based on the novel by Thomas Savage) sees her tackling a story that might be set in a unique American time and place, yet resonates for much of a culture that promotes certain gender and sexual identities and roles which, we understand now, do not reflect true human nature and being. Campion explores this strange masculinity and its manifestations, its reverberations on women and families, through the lens of the post-wild west.”
Shelagh’s spot-on. While there are also wonderfully sweet moments in The Power of the Dog (mostly as Phil’s dapper businessman brother George, played by Dunst’s real-life husband Jesse Plemons, courts the hard-drinking Rose), it’s the boiling kettle of strife between Peter and Phil that resonates. The threads are tightly woven as to deliver a stealth wallop of a finish, landing The Power of the Dog as the most essential revisionist Western to pass through the mountains in several years.
While it’s not unusual for fans and critics to bark the praises of Criterion’s transfers on disc, I don’t recall the last time a film’s presentation left me so awestruck. Although I’d come to this 4K UHD disc (vibrantly presented in Dolby Vision HDR, making quite the case for the sometimes-debated process) already an admirer of the film’s visuals, this viewing proved absolutely breathtaking.
Cursory comparison to the 1080p Blu-ray copy provided on a second disc (along with all the bonus features) makes a tremendous argument in favor of the 4K home video format, something quite above and beyond what I was expecting. Being that The Power of the Dog is only about a year old at the time of this physical release, it’s understandable that one would expect a strong transfer. What we’ve got here, though, is simply eye-opening next-level beauty.
If there’s a bone to pick with this release, it would be a minor one regarding the pre-packaged nature of most of the extras. Handed over fresh by Netflix in the wake of its mastiff-sized awards campaign for the film, there can’t help but be an overriding feeling of promotion over the purely analytical to certain pieces. Such is likely the price of having a work of this caliber herded into the Criterion Collection so soon after its initial drive. But that said, would many deny The Power of the Dog its inevitable spine number and “wacky C”? There’s still plenty of seemingly honest reflection and consideration to be had with this decent array of short featurettes:
Behind the Scenes with Jane Campion (17:31) is a short, somewhat unconventional look at the process of making the filming, carried by the voiceover of the filmmaker. Along the way she shares some of the personal reasons she was drawn to adapting the novel, a book of which she confides “haunted her” after reading it on her own time.
In Reframing the West (28:14), we quickly learn that it’s the source of the previous bonus feature. Made up of formal on-set interviews with cast and crew, this is the formally typical making-of promo piece. Actors discuss their characters in thoughtful and justifiably complex ways; Campion, ever chill and seemingly approachable, interjects her thoughts along the way. It is a bit weird to see the Netflix logo (it’s onscreen for this entire piece) this much throughout a Criterion disc, but I suppose that’s the world we’re now in.
Brokeback Mountain author Annie Proulx has her own supplemental appreciation (13:18) of the original 1967 novel, a work that was brought to her attention by its writer, Thomas Savage, after her gay-themed Western story was published. She’s still got the copy he happily sent her, as she reads brief passages amid her colorful musings about it, as well as its place in the continuum of American Western fiction.
The Women Behind The Power of the Dog (23:30) is a friendly round table chat (sans a table) with Campion, director of photography Ari Wegner, actor Kirsten Dunst, and producer Tanya Seghatchian, moderated by filmmaker Tamara Jenkins (Slums of Beverly Hills). Everyone gets their moments of mutual appreciation here, even as authentic personalities and insights into filming and working methods are gleaned.
Anatomy of a Score (13:25) is an audio discussion with Campion and composer Jonny Greenwood about the film’s compellingly non-romantic score. The chat moves across the prominent instruments utilized, including “The Cello,” “The Banjo,” and “The French Horn.” Corresponding footage of The Power of the Dog is seen, with only the music and the conversation about it heard.
Elder stateswoman film critic Amy Taubin provides the booklet essay. The new, ghostly artwork for this release is courtesy of Greg Ruth.
Not every film Campion’s made has been great, though her shining moments of far and away brilliance (most notably, the also-recently Criterion-released The Piano, sporting corresponding ethereal cover art) have elevated her into the pantheon of “Best Women Filmmakers. As cinema culture and society itself rightly moves on from cloistering filmmakers according to old-world gender dynamics, it’s only right that The Power of the Dog settles Campion within the landscape of “Best Filmmakers.. While the movie itself may still be thought of as wet behind the ears, there’s no denying its assurance as part of the venerable Criterion Collection.
The Power of the Dog
- Jane Campion
- Jane Campion
- Thomas Savage
- Benedict Cumberbatch
- Kirsten Dunst
- Jesse Plemons