Published in 1967, Thomas Savage’s ranch western The Power of the Dog opens with a vivid account of cattle castration: “Phil always did the castrating; first he sliced off the cup of the scrotum and tossed it aside; next he forced down first one and then the other testicle, slit the rainbow membrane that enclosed it, tore it out, and tossed it into the fire where the branding irons glowed. There was little blood.”
It wasn't this indelible image that stayed with director Jane Campion. Nor was it the psychodrama of a plotline about a woman coming between two brothers.
“Well, actually, the phrase that stayed with me is actually not in the film,” says Campion of her much-feted new adaptation of Savage’s novel. “It was Savage’s reliance on the idea of kindness. Like in the end, he says that the old folk kept talking about the kindness of what’s important. Which is sort of curious. Because it struck me that it’s not really a kind story.”
Campion’s first feature film since 2008 has already won the Silver Lion award for directing at the 78th Venice International Film Festival. She has, however, been occupied with the television mini-series Top of the Lake.
“There were two seasons of it,” she says. “So that’s actually 12 hours. And to me, that was like making a film. Actually, it was like making six films. So I’ve been busy. And it was fun exploring long-form storytelling.”
For decades, various studios and filmmakers have circled Thomas Savage's book. The late Paul Newman was previously attached to star and direct. In recent years, Sony Pictures, Wes Anderson's Indian Paintbrush imprint and Fox Searchlight had all approached Roger Frappier, the Canadian producer who held the rights to the novel, before Campion came calling. Enter Netflix, a streaming service that Campion likens to "the Medicis", with a plan to do with The Power of the Dog what they achieved with Alfonso Cuarón's Roma in 2018.
The film is, on every level, an epic project. The very title alludes to Psalm 22:20: "Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog." Cinematographer Ari Wegner (Lady Macbeth) brings the grandeur of John Ford's best westerns to each tableaux. Lord of the Rings Academy Award winner Grant Major constructed a huge ranch comprising a country farmhouse, pens and byres on the plains of southern New Zealand (a winning stand-in for Montana).
“It gave me an opportunity to work with a budget I haven’t had the chance to work with before, to fully express my vision,” says Campion. “I’m very grateful for that. Moving production to New Zealand was alarming for me at first. There is a lot of calculation that goes into the business of filmmaking, because it’s not a documentary, and we’re trying to create a world. Where can you do that best? Where can you do that best for the best return on your dollar? In order to tell the story extremely well – and it’s an expensive story to tell because one way or another, you’re going to have to build a lot of 1925 buildings like the actual three-storey house itself, the barn and the stockyards as well as a windmill – it was clear to us that we had to find ways to economise.
"I went to Montana to have a look at the ranch that Savage did live on and we met his family and met this great English professor and biographer, Alan Watson. So we had the opportunity to sort of get a very clear feeling for what it really looked like. But actually, it wasn't the house of my imagination or the fiction of the story. And we didn't find any ranch houses in Montana that could be renovated economically to tell our story. It became clear that it would be easier for us to work in New Zealand. We have an amazing landscape there. If it can be Middle Earth, it could be Montana for us."
Speaking to this newspaper in recent months, Benedict Cumberbatch revealed the lengths that Campion went to so that the actor could stay in character. As part of his extensive preparations, Cumberbatch learned to braid ropes and castrate cattle.
"This is a very deep-dive kind of character for anybody. I think it's one of the most challenging characters I can think of, not only for Benedict but for anybody to play. So my main thing was to have a fantastic actor. If you think of his Sherlock Holmes, it's a fiery character but with a lot going on underneath. I felt he had the sensitivity to be a great fit. That was my bet anyway, and I think it paid off."
Until now, Campion's films have pitched their heroines against convention and expectation. An Angel at My Table (1990) dramatised the autobiographies of Janet Frame, the New Zealand author whose lobotomy was cancelled when she was awarded a national literary prize. In Holy Smoke, the family of a young spiritual woman hire an American exit counsellor to deprogramme her. In The Piano, a mute 19th-century bride expresses herself through the instrument of the title.
When Xavier Dolan received the Prix du Jury at Cannes for his film Mommy, he said that Campion's The Piano ". . . made me want to write roles for women – beautiful women with soul, will and strength, not victims or objects."
The Power of the Dog is, accordingly, new gendered terrain for Campion. The film concerns two brothers – the meek, kindly George (Jesse Plemons) and the domineering, sexually repressed Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) – living together on a ranch in Montana in the 1920s. When George marries the widowed Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and moves his new bride and her effeminate son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) into the family homestead, the volatile Phil bullies and provokes his unwanted in-laws.
It shows you how invented that alpha male, the dominant persona is. Because, in reality, that's not really who the character is. He's hiding behind masculinity
Campion's 2008 historical drama Bright Star charted John Keats's doomed romance with Fanny Brawne, but The Power of the Dog is the filmmaker's most masculine picture. Or at least that's what Campion, who took notes from Brokeback Mountain author Annie Proulx before writing the script, wants you to think.
“It’s interesting that you say very masculine,” says Campion. “Because I think you might also say that the shield is very masculine. The front that the character puts forward is extremely male. It’s a kind of, you know, I guess it shows you how invented that alpha male, the dominant persona is. Because, in reality, that’s not really who the character is. He’s hiding behind masculinity. And you see that and the parts of the story where he’s completely himself and completely free. I think when you go to make a film, you ask yourself: what’s its relevance? If it doesn’t have any at all, well, that’s pretty hard. For me, I felt when I was reading the book, that, number one, it was an amazing story. And number two, it was so surprising. And those qualities in a film are fantastic. And then the third thing was that really was a great portrait of masculinity and the complexity of it. It asked, is masculinity really a thing? Or is it a creation? Is it fiction or an armoury?”
The second of only seven women ever nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director and the first female film-maker to receive the Palme d'Or is greatly heartened by the recent successes of Oscar winner Chloe Zhao and Palme d'Or winner Julia Ducournau.
“I think once you give them a chance, there’s not going to be much stopping them. I know the statistics still aren’t in women’s favour. It’s a great loss for everyone that there aren’t feminine voices describing our world and who we are. We come to believe we are a patriarchy when that isn’t the case. Women do think differently and that’s what is beautiful and interesting. Since the MeToo movement, I feel a change in the weather. For women, it has been like the fall of the Berlin Wall or the end of apartheid. Women are emboldened and are supported by each other and by men as well.”
In advertising, and in television, women are more powerful than they used to be. A lot of content is created for and by women. What women are interested in is now interesting
After more than three decades in the business, Campion is well placed to decipher the current cultural conversation that has underpinned the rise of the young female film-makers she admires. There are, however, still battles to be won.
“I think there’s a genuine shift in the business,” she says. “For me, it really began when Roger Ailes resigned from Fox. The change was economic because what happened at Fox was that he would have stayed on had the advertisers not withdrawn their support and their money from the channel. They were worried about how the women would see it. Suddenly women had that power to actually influence advertisers. You see with someone like Trump; we all knew he was doing appalling things and saying ‘grab them by the pussy’ and all that kind of disgusting talk. Yet he prevailed. Because somehow enough people were admiring of his style of swagger. But in the advertising world, and in television, women are more powerful than they used to be. A lot of content is created for and by women. What women are interested in is now interesting. The conversation has moved on from, oh, what women make is boring and feminist. I do definitely think that the exposure of abuse in the industry has shown that there can only be equality is everyone is a player. Women started to back each other up, and there was real strength in that.
“The inequality was extraordinarily obvious for so long. And that was no problem for the dominant, great white male. There was no push to change it. Now, things are very different. There’s a genuine move towards diversity. I’m really thrilled with that. I want the world to be a more diverse place, a more interesting place and not just reflect,you know, what the great white male is thinking.”
The Power of the Dog is on Netflix