The Power of the Dog: it's a Jane Campion movie, all right!

Anyone watched this?

Slightly weird discrepancy between the critic and audience scores

Been hearing great things on some podcasts I listen to. Even some Cumberbatch skeptics say he’s incredible. It’s Jane Campion, so it probably doesn’t play like a standard western/frontier story, and so good chance the average Netflix viewer might be a little mystified by it.

Only reason I haven’t watched it yet is that I’m watching other older Campion movies in anticipation of the upcoming Blank Check podcast episodes on her. (Just watched In the Cut for the first time. Yow!)

That’s the one where Meg Ryan bares it all? I think I remember not being a fan of it.

I love In the Cut. I think Campion does sexual dysfunction like no one else, and it was nice to see her doing something modern with modern characters. In the Cut kind of turns out to be a standard serial killer yarn, but it’s a Jane Campion serial killer yarn. And it’s got a couple of great performances that are atypical for Ruffalo and Ryan.

Power of the Dog is much more in Jane Campion’s traditional wheelhouse: frontier life. It’s also the best Codi Smit-McPhee performance you’ll see. Not because the guy suddenly got talented, but because a filmmaker finally realized the perfect role for him. You also get some vintage frumpy Dunst. Married to Jesse Plemons, too, which is the best kind of frumpy Dunst!

It’s not for everyone, of course, and it’s clearly adapted from a novel. It’s a very “literary” story and once it’s decided what it’s about, it might be confusing to some people. But I liked it a lot. Not as much as In the Cut, but a lot.


In the Cut is a movie that’s very much not interested in idealizing anything–city life, police work, desire, sex… (Well okay, I guess Mark Ruffalo is portrayed as giving perfect cunnilingus. He’s not perfect at much else.) The characters make some WILD choices as things move along, sometimes excused by lust, sometimes by nothing at all. In the end, its the complex performances and the almost monomaniacal production design and direction (e.g., if you tried to track all the instances of the color red in this thing, you would be too overwhelmed to actually take in the rest of the movie) that really elevate it. I haven’t seen many other Jane Campion movies, but I’m assuming it’s “minor Campion” and that’s still pretty good.

I remember I watched “The Piano” with a male and female friend, and usually the three of us were pretty in tune in those days, but I remember the female friend was right away rooting for Sam Neill’s character soon after the Piano hit the beach. I was muttering, no no no, the movie wants us to root for this lady, not Sam Neill! But once she starts cheating on Sam Neill, the possibility of rooting for her was right out! So yeah, that was a weird experience.

I haven’t seen any other Campion movies.

I think it’s one of Campion’s best, but it put off a lot of people by casting wholesome celebrities like American sweetheart Meg Ryan and sensitive teddy bear Mark Ruffalo into roles as sexually charged characters who are more than willing to articulate their sexuality. It’s vulgar in a way that people tend to keep to their private lives. Basically, the characters in In the Cut behave unlike the characters in a romantic comedy, and a lot of people who go to see Meg Ryan or Mark Ruffalo expect romantic comedies.

And the people who weren’t put off by that, who were totally onboard for an arthouse movie about sexuality, probably didn’t react well to being served up a prosaic serial killer yarn. So it was kind of a lose-lose all around.

But Campion’s direction in that movie is so smart. Every shot is charged with some kind of menace or unease. It just feels so…off. And since it’s not set on a remote frontier, since it’s about city life that anyone can relate to, it’s got a much more immediate sensibility. It’s not about lurking and possibly murderous sexual dysfunction in some remote historical nook; it’s about the people on the streets around you every day. In fact, I think this is one reason In the Cut sidesteps some of the weirdness of The Piano and Power of the Dog. We have certain expectations about what happens on the frontiers, and Campion’s movies stray pretty far from that expectation.

So I can understand why In the Cut doesn’t work for some people and why it’s so widely reviled. But I think In the Cut is one of Jane Campion’s best movies.


It’s hard to recall at this point, but I think this was my take. I’m willing to revisit it and revise my op, but it’s very unlikely I’ll make the time to do so. Otoh I will probably watch The Power of the Dog

Oh, you should definitely watch Power of the Dog! Even if just to see Codi Smit-McPhee hoola-hooping or the amazing Thomasin Mackenzie umpiring a tennis match!

But as a Campion enthusiast, you should re-watch In the Cut at some point. I think she’s in top form in that movie, and Ryan and Ruffalo are so much fun playing against their types. I also love how Campion presents New York City as an ominous bustling entity instead of the usual glowing fallscape it is in romances or dramas, or the gritty urban wasteland it is in cop or serial killer movies. It’s like New York City as a creepy voyeur watching people fuck and kill each other.


About 15 minutes in, I was like, “No way, I would take Meg Ryan’s teacher’s salary and get as far away from that neighborhood as I could, doesn’t matter where!”

Cumberbatch is very, very good in it. I expect he’ll get an oscar nomination. Not that that means anything, although if it means more people will see a Jane Campion movie, then that’s good.

For those who have seen it, I would love to talk a bit about the key turning point that happens in “Chapter 5”…


…when Phil Burbank suddenly starts acting nice to Pete, aka Miss Nancy.

It takes place immediately after Pete find’s Phil’s stash of magazines, and catches Phil bathing, but there is a chapter break between the two scenes which I interpret as a chunk of time passing. Nevertheless, in the moment I believe we’re meant to think that Phil is disingenuously ingratiating himself to the kid in order to undermine the mother, and thus potentially worm his way back into his brother’s life. There are a couple of key shots of Cumberbatch throwing cold sidelong glances Dunst’s way which reinforce this, I think.

However, after I had seen the full film to the end, I’m now not so sure. I now think that perhaps Phil was acting more on instinct. Pretty much everything he did is some sort of performative attempt to “be a real man”, and so this might not have been a conscious desire, but more some mix of wanting to be the Bronco Henry for this kid (both in terms of being a mentor, and also some very sublimated desire to be a lover) and wanting to simply have people in his life again.

I think it’s pretty good misdirection that’s also character-based. Watch that scene again with an eye to how Pete responds to Phil in that moment … the seeds are sown for the ending right then and there in the writing, even if Kodi Smit-McPhee doesn’t really convey anything (he never really does).

Would love to hear more on what you guys’ thoughts on that turn in the story.

Great catch, @sinnick, and exactly the reason this movie is so rich. I’ve only seen it once, and I don’t think it’s possible to understand all the subtext the first time through, because you don’t know what the characters are doing as they’re doing it; you only discover their motivations later.

In other words, you watch Power of the Dog once to discover what happens. You watch it a second time to appreciate the performances now that you know what the characters know.

Campion is displaying a profound trust in her audience with the way the movie is structured. She expects they’re going to be invested enough in the characters to pay close attention, even though we don’t yet understand the characters. It’s a risky but tantalizing way to tell a story.

I love this line!

But as a long-time Kodi Smit-McPhee detractor – I feel like he’s made every movie he’s been in worse until Power of the Dog – I will gladly eat a little crow after watching him in this movie. He’s perfectly cast and he holds his own alongside Dunst and Cumberbatch. In fact, I feel like he spends the movie earning the payoff that will be laid at his feet at the end. If he keeps getting roles like this, I’m going to end up a Kodi Smit-McPhee fan!


Totally. Pete asks Phil “When will the rope be done?” Phil says “I could get it finished before you go back to school”, and Pete replies: “Won’t be very long then, Phil”. Takes on a whole new meaning when you know where things are going.

I didn’t think I’d ever seen him in anything else but I guess he was in Planet of the Apes and some of the X-Men movies? I don’t remember him in either of those, but I don’t remember a lot about them either. Maybe he was an ape? In any event I’m not sure what he’s normally like, but he portrayed nothing but weird flatness the whole way through. I suppose you could argue that was a “choice” :).

That’s Kodi Smit-McPhee alright.

Yeah, weird flatness is a great way to put it. But what I like in Power of the Dog is how it suggests – and I felt successfully – that there’s so much more going on beneath the surface. And by the time the movie is over, it turns out it’s not what you expected was going on. Power of the Dog takes Kodi Smit-McPhee’s “weird flatness” and makes it seem calculating and insidious.

As for where you might have seen him before, I first saw him as the boy in John Hillcoat’s adaptation of The Road. He was not at all what I wanted as the object of Viggo Mortensen’s post-apocalyptic fatherly love. Too old, too well fed, and too weirdly flat!


The Washington Post’s Inkoo Kang is a fellow In the Cut fan. And she thinks it’s a thematic precursor to Power of the Dog:

Spoilers for both movies, obviously.


Oh, that was one hell of a movie. Need to let it sink in for a bit. I thought Titane was a lock for my favorite movie of the year, but now I’m not so sure.

I felt almost exhilarated as the credits ran; finally able to breathe after such sustained tension.

Regarding your spoilers…

More spoilers

Was Pete following (or rather, stalking) Phil when he found the stash and swimming hole? I only just watched it for the first time this evening, but I wonder now whether Pete had already decided on his plans (if not form, at least outcome) even before that point.

Not really spoilers but I loved this film enough I want everyone to go in fresh

One bit I really loved is how it’s gradually revealed how much of Phil’s appearance and behavior is artifice. Initially, it appears that George is the one who doesn’t belong, with his formal dress, good manners, and routine bathing. Phil reminds him of how long they’d been making the cattle drives together, and mocks George for his failed attempt at going to college, and we get the impression that George is putting on airs and trying to escape that life. I, at least, assumed their wealth was new, and the house and conveniences were George’s choice to distance himself from Phil and their past.

But gradually we find out that they come from wealth. Phil not only attended college, but belonged to a fraternity at Yale, and majored in Classics. And a gifted musician, to boot. The family was successful before they took over, and those comforts are not new. It’s Phil who is putting distance between himself and the others, emulating his hero/mentor/lover(/abuser?) and putting on a show of masculinity.

And I wonder what happened to Bronco Henry. Judging from the plaque, he didn’t live a long life…

Spoilers, obviously. You really can’t discuss Power of the Dog in any meaningful way without them.

This never would have occurred to me, but isn’t it shot to imply that Pete doesn’t know what he’s found when he’s investigating the secret passage? In other words, he wasn’t following Phil, but instead he accidentally stumbled across the entrance.

I’ve only seen the movie once and I’m wondering if these conversations require a second viewing. :) But now I’m wondering if there are hints that Pete’s scheming against Phil pre-dates the swimming hole discovery.