Note: This movie was screened at the AFI Film Festival in Hollywood and included a post-film Q&A with the cast and crew. This was the Los Angeles red-carpet premiere for the film. 

HOLLYWOOD — The Power of the Dog is the first film in 12 years from Jane Campion, one of cinema’s greatest living directors. Campion is from New Zealand and is best known for 1993’s The Piano, for which she won an Oscar at the Academy Awards and the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. 

This film was worth the wait. The Power of the Dog is an intense and poetic tragedy set in the American West. The film’s focus on hidden identities and lost souls is based entirely on emotion, and makes it relatable for audiences all around the world. There's no prerequisite of having an interest in westerns before watching this movie. One only needs to have an interest in a story of humanity, and the deep pain that comes from not being your authentic self. 

The Power of the Dog is filled with performative masculinity. This is unsurprising for a western, as the genre often features men performing their most masculine behavior, often as a show for the people around them. The interesting aspect is the film features a mostly-female crew, and as the director describes it, they all collectively “gave birth” to the film. Star Benedict Cumberbatch added he had “many mothers on set.” 

Cumberbatch is heartbreaking and phenomenal as the internally-conflicted main character, Phil Burbank. He said it was “cathartic to express deep pain” through his performance. Indeed, the pain can be felt through the screen, as Burbank is a tragic figure with unseen torment. Cumberbatch cites Campion’s impeccable direction for helping him dive into the submerged psyche of his character. He described his performance as being a character he himself is constantly performing, and pretending to be someone he's not. 

Kodi Smit-McPhee’s character, Peter Gordon, isn't one who hides who he is. In doing so, he's teased and mocked by the men in his community. Phil Burbank in particular is distressed by Peter’s presence because it represents an alternate version of himself that didn’t hide who he truly is. Peter is also a character who defies and disproves traditional conceptions of strength and weakness. His surprising viciousness is revealed by the film’s conclusion, and falls in line with the medical preciseness fitting for someone who aspires to be a doctor. 

Kirsten Dunst has experience portraying depression, and she does so again here, managing to externalize a highly internal feeling. The piano is featured in her storyline, seeming to be a nod to Campion’s most renowned film, but in this case, the piano doesn't represent joy. Dunst is joined on-screen with her real-life partner, Jesse Plemons, giving a fantastic performance, as has become expected of him. 

The crew of this film were also integral to its creation. Composer Jonny Greenwood of UK band Radiohead, did the haunting score. It’s reminiscent of his other score for an alt-Western dark character study: There Will Be Blood. His music creates an uneasy atmosphere. This aids in the goal the director, cinematographer, and editor had from the beginning. They wanted audiences to leave the theater speechless, and with a mixture of conflicting emotions. 

While the movie is masterfully made, it's not for everyone. It’s a film that creates an uncomfortable atmosphere, then builds a habitat, and camps out in that discomfortable feeling. This sounds similar to the sub-genre of comedy known as “cringe humor” and featured in popular shows like The Office. In this case though, Campion has perhaps made a new genre: “cringe drama.” This is an experimental film that challenges traditional storytelling structure, and its audience along the way. 

The screening and Q&A for this film were held at the world-famous TCL Chinese Theatre as part of the American Film Institute’s annual international film festival. Actress Kathryn Hahn, who wasn't involved in the film, served as the moderator for the panel. Her enthusiasm for the movie and the individuals involved brought great energy to the proceeding. During the Q&A, Hahn asked questions of director Jane Campion, cinematographer Ari Wegner, editor Peter Sciberras, and actors Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, and Kodi Smit-McPhee. 

The title of the film comes from a Bible verse featured during the movie: Psalm 22:20 — “Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog.” This beguiling verse is open for interpretation, especially in the context of this movie. This fits snugly within the poetic atmosphere of the film, most of which is equivocal. This is a movie that's impossible to pin down, but it's a thoughtful reflection on what it means to be one’s authentic self. For that reason, it's applicable to all living people. 

Bobby Styles studied Film at UCLA, and worked as an editor and producer on several film, commercial, and music video projects in Los Angeles. He currently teaches the intermediate and advanced Video Production courses in the Multimedia & Technology Academy at Monache High School. His column appears in The Recorder every Tuesday. 

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