The Power of the Dog (film)

The Power of the Dog is a 2021 Western psychological drama film[6][7][8] written and directed by Jane Campion, based on the 1967 novel of the same name by Thomas Savage. The film stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee. Shot mostly across rural Otago, New Zealand, the film is an international co-production among New Zealand, Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada. The film deals with themes such as love, grief, resentment, jealousy and sexuality.[9]

The Power of the Dog
The Power of the Dog (film).jpg
Release poster
Directed byJane Campion
Screenplay byJane Campion
Based onThe Power of the Dog
by Thomas Savage
Produced by
CinematographyAri Wegner
Edited byPeter Sciberras
Music byJonny Greenwood
Distributed by
Release dates
  • September 2, 2021 (2021-09-02) (Venice)
  • November 11, 2021 (2021-11-11) (Australia and New Zealand)
  • November 17, 2021 (2021-11-17) (United Kingdom and United States)
Running time
126 minutes[2]
  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • United States
  • United Kingdom
  • Canada[1]
Budget$30–39 million[3]
Box office$208,037[4][5]
(Limited Release)

The Power of the Dog had its world premiere at the 78th Venice International Film Festival on September 2, 2021, where Campion won the Silver Lion for Best Direction. The film had a limited theatrical release in Australia and New Zealand on November 11, 2021, and in the United Kingdom and in the United States on November 17 and it was released to stream worldwide on Netflix on December 1, 2021.

The film received acclaim from critics, who praised Campion's direction and screenplay, cinematography, the score, and performances of the cast (particularly Cumberbatch, Dunst and Smit-McPhee). It was named one of the best films of 2021 by the American Film Institute. It also received seven nominations at the 79th Golden Globe Awards, winning Best Motion Picture – Drama, Best Supporting Actor – Motion Picture for Smit-McPhee and Best Director for Campion and ten nominations at the 27th Critics' Choice Awards, including Best Picture.


In 1925 Montana, wealthy ranch-owning brothers Phil and George Burbank meet widow and inn owner Rose Gordon during a cattle drive. The kind-hearted George is quickly taken with Rose, while the volatile Phil, much influenced by his late mentor "Bronco" Henry, mocks Rose's son Peter for his lisp and effeminate manner.

George and Rose soon marry. Rose uses George's money to send her son to college to study medicine and surgery while she moves into the Burbank ranch house. Phil takes a disliking to her, believing she married George for his money. His rough ways and taunting manner unnerve her. George organizes a dinner party with his parents and the governor so they can meet Rose and hear her play their new piano. Rose is unable to play more than a few notes of the "Radetzky March" and is further humiliated when Phil belittles her. She begins drinking alcohol, something she was previously opposed to.

By the time Peter comes to stay at the ranch for the summer break, Rose has become an alcoholic. Phil and his men taunt Peter, and he sequesters himself in his room, dissecting animals and studying diseases. In a secluded clearing, Phil masturbates with Bronco Henry's handkerchief. Peter enters the clearing and finds a stash of magazines with Bronco Henry's name on them depicting nude men. He observes Phil bathing in a pond with the handkerchief around his neck; Phil notices him and chases him off.

To torment Rose further, Phil begins to show decency to Peter, offering to plait him a lasso from rawhide and teach him how to ride a horse. Peter heads out on his own one day and finds a dead cow, presumably dead from anthrax infection. He puts on gloves and cuts pieces of the cow's hide. On a fencing job, Peter and Phil corner and kill a rabbit, and Phil gets an open wound on his hand. Afterward, Peter tells Phil about finding the body of his alcoholic father, who had hanged himself, and cutting him down himself.

Seeing how much time her son spends with Phil, Rose's alcoholism worsens. Upon learning about Phil's policy of burning the hides he does not need for himself, Rose defiantly gives them to local Native American traders who thank her with a pair of gloves. She then collapses from her rapid alcohol consumption, and George tends to her.

With no hides to finish Peter's lasso, Phil is despondent and attempts to lash out at Rose before being stopped by George. Peter calms him down by offering him the hide he cut from the dead cattle, but he does not mention that the animal was diseased. Phil is touched and promises Peter they'll have a much better relationship from now on. They spend the night in the barn finishing the rope, Phil's wound and the hide mixing in water that softens the hide.

Phil tells Peter how Bronco Henry saved his life by lying body-to-body with him in a bedroll during freezing weather. Phil does not answer when Peter asks if they were naked. They then share a cigarette. When Phil does not show up for breakfast the following day, George finds him sickened in bed and his wound heavily infected. A delirious Phil looks for Peter to give him the finished lasso, but George takes Phil away to the doctor before he can hand it over. George is later seen picking out a coffin while Phil's body is prepared for burial.

At the funeral, the doctor tells George that Phil most likely died from anthrax, puzzling him, as Phil was always careful to avoid diseased cattle. Having not gone to the funeral, Peter opens a Book of Common Prayer to the burial rite and then reads Psalm 22:20: "Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog." Later he puts his finished lasso under his bed with gloved hands. As he walks down the hall, he stops at a window and watches George and a now sober Rose return home and embrace. He turns away and smiles.




In early 2017, writer-director Jane Campion, having just finished filming the second season of Top of the Lake, received a copy of Thomas Savage's 1967 novel The Power of the Dog from her stepmother, Judith. Campion was enthralled by the book and began hunting for its film rights. She and producer Tanya Seghatchian eventually obtained the rights from Canadian producer Roger Frappier after meeting up with him at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.[10][11] According to Campion, the novel had been optioned at least five times prior but was never made.[11] Paul Newman was among those who had tried to adapt the book.[12]

While working on the script, Campion maintained correspondence with author Annie Proulx, who penned the afterword to a 2001 edition of Savage's novel.[13][14] After completing her first draft, Campion visited Savage's ranch in Montana, met with members of his family (the author had died in 2003) and consulted with an expert on Savage from the University of Montana Western in Dillon.[10] Campion was unable to film in Montana due to budget concerns, and opted to shoot in her native New Zealand instead.[11] Cinematographer Ari Wegner and production designer Grant Major eventually landed on a location in Central Otago in New Zealand's South Island, months before the film's early 2020 start date.[10]

Development and casting

It was announced in May 2019 that Campion was to write and direct the film with Benedict Cumberbatch and Elisabeth Moss cast to star.[15] Paul Dano entered negotiations to join the film in September.[16] He would be confirmed to star the next month, with Kirsten Dunst cast to replace Moss in her role.[17] However, by November, Dano also dropped out due to scheduling conflicts with The Batman. Jesse Plemons, who was originally offered the role before Dano, was cast to replace him.[18] In February 2020, Thomasin McKenzie, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Frances Conroy, Keith Carradine, Peter Carroll, and Adam Beach were confirmed to be cast in the film.[19]

Campion had Cumberbatch in mind for the role of Phil Burbank.[11] He first caught Campion's attention in the 2012-2013 BBC drama Parade's End.[14] To prepare for the role, Cumberbatch did research into the Lewis and Clark Expedition and worked for a time on a cattle ranch near Glacier National Park in Montana.[10] He attended a three-week boot camp to learn horse-riding, rope-throwing, castrating bulls and playing the banjo.[14][20]


Filming began in New Zealand in January 2020 in the Maniototo in Central Otago, and also took place in the coastal Otago city of Dunedin and the town of Oamaru.[21][22][23] Production on the film was halted in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.[10] After border exemptions were granted for cast and crew, production resumed in June 2020.[24] All of the film's interior scenes were shot on sound stages in Auckland during the final weeks of filming. Principal photography concluded in July 2020.[10] Throughout the production Cumberbatch stayed in character, with him and Dunst agreeing not to speak on set.[14][20][25][26]


Director of photography Ari Wegner shot The Power of the Dog using two Arri Alexa LF cameras paired with Panavision Ultra Panatar lenses, with a 2.40:1 aspect ratio.[27][28] Campion was specifically looking for a female cinematographer who would be willing to embark on a full year of preparations alongside her. She reached out to Wegner, who had shot a 2015 ANZ ad campaign with Campion.[29] Wegner and Campion did meticulous storyboarding for the film, sometimes separately so that the two could compare later.[30] Wegner drew extensively on the work of Evelyn Cameron, an English photographer who moved to Montana near the turn of the 20th century.[29] Period photographs from the Time magazine archives, Ken Burns' documentary series The West and the works of artists Andrew Wyeth and Lucian Freud were additional points of reference.[28][31]

Set design

Grant Major was responsible for The Power of the Dog's production design; he had previously worked with Campion on her film An Angel at My Table.[14] Against difficult weather conditions, Grant and his team built the façade of the two-story mansion, a working barn, a cattle pen and stockyards on location in time for the start of the shoot.[10][14] The interiors of the mansion, built later on a sound stage in Auckland, were modeled after Theodore Roosevelt's Sagamore Hill.[32][33] Period-correct furniture was not readily available in New Zealand and as a result, set decorator Amber Richards sourced most of the objects from various prop houses in Los Angeles.[33]


Campion recruited Jonny Greenwood to compose the score for The Power of the Dog.[34] Greenwood wanted to avoid the "sweeping strings" typical of Westerns, opting instead to use atonal brass sounds in order to emphasize the "alien, forbidding" nature of the film's landscapes.[34] He was not satisfied with the sound of Phil's banjo on screen and, as an alternative, took to play the cello like a banjo on his own, using the same fingerpicking technique.[34] The resulting sound, according to Greenwood, was "a nice confusion" and "a sound you recognize, but it's not a style that you’re familiar with."[35] As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and the gathering restrictions in place, Greenwood was unable to work with an orchestra and had to record much of the cello parts on his own, layering them to achieve an orchestral texture.[36]


The Power of the Dog had its world premiere at the 78th Venice International Film Festival on September 2, 2021, and had Special Presentation screenings at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival and Telluride Film Festival that same month.[37][38] By the end of its run, the film screened at film festivals in Charlottesville,[39] London,[40] Middleburg,[41] Mill Valley,[42] Montclair,[43] New York (centerpiece screening),[44] San Diego,[45] San Sebastian,[46] Savannah,[47] and Zurich.[48] The film also played at the 52nd International Film Festival of India in November.[49]

The film had a limited theatrical release in Australia and New Zealand commenced early on November 11, with theatrical distribution in both countries handled by Transmission Films.[50][51] It began a limited theatrical release in the United States and the United Kingdom on November 17, 2021.[52][53] It was released on Netflix worldwide on December 1.[53]


Box office

Although Netflix does not report box office grosses of its films, IndieWire estimated the film made $125,000 from 40 theaters in its opening weekend, and a total of $160,000 over its first five days.[54]

Audience viewership

Over its first five days of digital release, The Power of the Dog was watched by 1.2 million households in the U.S., according to Samba TV. The film played best in coastal cities like Portland and Boston. Internationally, it was streamed by 92,000 UK households, 37,000 German households, and 16,000 Australian households over its first five days.[55]

Critical response

Jane Campion garnered widespread acclaim for her directing and screenplay and was awarded the Silver Lion in 2021.

On review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 95% based on 300 reviews, with an average rating of 8.40/10. The site's critics consensus reads, "Brought to life by a stellar ensemble led by Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog reaffirms writer-director Jane Campion as one of her generation's finest filmmakers."[56] According to Metacritic, which assigned a weighted average score of 89 out of 100 based on 57 critics, the film received "universal acclaim".[57]

Reviewing the film for The Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney wrote, "This is an exquisitely crafted film, its unhurried rhythms continually shifting as plangent notes of melancholy, solitude, torment, jealousy and resentment surface. Campion is in full control of her material, digging deep into the turbulent inner life of each of her characters with unerring subtlety."[58] Conversely, Owen Gleiberman of Variety wrote, "All of this should build, slowly and inexorably, in force and emotion. But for a film that's actually, at heart, rather tidy and old-fashioned in its triangular gamesmanship, The Power of the Dog needed to get to a more bruising catharsis. In its crucial last act, the film becomes too oblique."[59]


The film appeared on many critics' lists of the best films of 2021.


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External links