On Friday evening, halfway through the march of this year’s New York Film Festival, the legendary director and writer Jane Campion joined Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee and Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos in premiering her newest film, “The Power of the Dog,” to a New York audience.
Friday’s event spilled over into Central Park’s Tavern on the Green for an intimate after party. The evening continued “The Power of the Dog’s” fall tour across the world’s film festivals, from Venice to Telluride to Toronto. It also sustained the film community’s continued elation to find Campion, whose movies have offered a few of the better-drawn feminist characters in film, promoting her first feature in 12 years.
“Ever since I was young and watched ‘The Piano,’ Jane has been a filmmaker that I’ve admired and wanted to work with,” Dunst told Variety at the premiere. “When I was in my 20s, she actually sent me a letter about working together… I’ve saved it since. Her films and the women in them have sustained me across my whole career.”
As an adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name, “The Power of the Dog” is drenched in the low simmering sexuality and suffuse, carnal imagery that Campion does best.
Set in 1920s Montana, the film follows a masochistic cattle rancher named Phil Burbank (Cumberbatch) whose reign of terror is drawn from a frontier-worn masculinity and deeply closeted sexuality. When his brother (Jesse Plemons) marries a young widow (Kirsten Dunst) with an effeminate, queer son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Cumberbatch’s character is again reminded of the mentorship, affection and intimacy of a former cowboy.
“The film is clearly a complex way of approaching masculinity. I think it’s a solid container for thinking and rethinking the men in this world,” Campion offered at the press conference before the premiere on Friday. “I see this film as a departure from my other films, but maybe it’s a nice bookend to ‘The Piano,’” she said. “This is another big landscape film exploring the masculine myth.”
The film asks what happens if you turn the American Western on its head—when you look at the genre’s mythic ideas of self-determination and fantastical masculinity as exercises in performance concealing hidden sexual desire. More to the point, what would happen if a famed New Zealander tackled American masculinity and male intimacy by filming a cast of straight actors in the mountains of New Zealand?
As it would seem from Campion and Cumberbatch, the film becomes neither a Western nor a narrative exclusively concerned with the twisted trauma of internal homophobia and closeted queerness.
“I didn’t think of it as a Western,” Campion said at the screening, offering that she found the story too contained within its characters to engage in the genre. “The story was too specific.”
Cumberbatch offered his own assessment of Phil. “He’s a tough guy,” he told Variety at the premiere. “He’s an alpha male who had this burning love affair in his youth, which could never be spoken of. The tragedy is what twists him into toxic masculinity, born out as angst and punishment and hate on the world.”
“Yet it’s so hard to view the film through today’s lens,” Cumberbatch, who has previously answered criticism toward his playing of queer characters, continued. “We look at this now as a queer text, but the story is tied to its time and place,” he said. “Phil is lonely, jealous and grief-stricken, but he’s not disgusted with himself. In Montana, in the open frontier, he has privacy.”