The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion returns to the kind of mythic frontier landscape—pulsating with both freedom and menace—that she previously traversed in The Piano in order to plumb the masculine psyche in The Power of the Dog, set against the desolate plains of 1920s Montana and adapted by the filmmaker from Thomas Savage’s novel. After a sensitive widow (Kirsten Dunst) and her enigmatic, fiercely loving son (Kodi Smit-Mcphee) move in with her gentle new husband (Jesse Plemons), a tense battle of wills plays out between them and his brutish brother (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose frightening volatility conceals a secret torment, and whose capacity for tenderness, once reawakened, may offer him redemption or destruction. Campion, who won an Academy Award for her direction here, charts the repressed desire and psychic violence coursing among these characters with the mesmerizing control of a master at the height of her powers.
The Criterion Collection presents Jane Campion’s 2021 film The Power of the Dog on 4K UHD, delivering the film in its original aspect ratio of 2.28:1 on a triple-layer disc. Presented in 2160p/24hz ultra high-definition with Dolby Vision, the master was supplied by Netflix. Criterion also includes a standard 1080p/24hz high-definition presentation on a dual-layer disc, that disc also housing this release’s supplements. No supplements are included on the UHD disc.
The film was shot in 4K digital, and it appears as though the master was sourced directly from the Digital Intermediate. Due to the source the presentation does have the smooth, digital look that would be expected but this doesn’t impact the image in any negative way. Detail levels are still incredibly high (notably better when compared to the high-def presentation found on the standard Blu-ray), long shots of the barren New Zealand (standing in for Montana) landscape exposing every rock, pebble and blade of grass, while close-ups on the actors’ faces exposes every individual bead of sweat or stubble with a shocking amount of clarity. The Blu-ray still handles this all rather well itself, but there really is just a nice little boost to clarity here with the image also appearing a bit cleaner from a digital perspective, especially in the darker areas of the screen.
Dolby Vision then adds another wonderful layer to the presentation. The use is more subtle and rarely calls attention to itself: outside of some candles and a handful of other light sources there’s nothing that ever comes out all that “hot” or bright, and even those cases are mild. Instead, it’s use simply aids in enhancing detail in the shadows and servicing light entering the darker interiors. An evening dinner sequence, which looked fine if a little bit flat on the Blu-ray, shows better depth thanks to those improved shadows, and I loved how you could make out the fine dust in the environment when the light comes in from the windows. The gradients from light to dark are also cleaner here. It’s a subtle boost but it still adds a lot to the presentation.
Black levels and colours also get a nice little boost, despite the limited spectrum of the latter: outside of a handful of reds, blues, and greens the colour scheme primarily consists of browns. And since the film comes from a digital source there is of course no damage to speak of. I also can’t say I saw any digital anomalies. All around it’s a terrific looking presentation.
The film comes with a Dolby Atmos soundtrack. I listened to it with a 5.1.2 surround setup, the two Atmos speakers in the front.
The film is reflective and quiet in nature but the mix has some great little moments scattered about. The score fills out the soundfield nicely with superb direction and subtle bass, even showing some height on occasion. There are some nice ambient effects that pop in there (the wind blowing through trees for example), and I thought the musical “dueling” sequence between Dunst and Cumberbatch (her downstairs on the piano, him upstairs on the banjo) made decent use of the environment as well, his strumming sounding to come ever so subtly from above. Range is impressive between the quieter and louder moments, dialogue sounding crisp and clean.
It’s not especially showy but effective, nonetheless.
The supplements (all found on the included standard Blu-ray disc) left me a little disappointed, a majority of it all appearing to be material produced by Netflix. That of course includes a 17-minute Behind-the-Scenes featurette and a 28-minute making-of entitled Reframing the West. The making-of is the more conventional of the two, offering a look into the film’s production through interviews with the cast (Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Kodi Smit-McPhee) and crew (Campion, producer Tanya Seghatchian, cinematographer Ari Wegner, editor Peter Sciberras, costume designer Kirsty Cameron, makeup artist Noriko Watanabe, supervising sound editor Robert MacKenzie and composer Jonny Greenwood, the last of whom isn’t credited in the notes). The actors give a general rundown of the story while also offering up their thoughts on their characters and the performances of their peers. From this we learn, unsurprisingly, Cumberbatch spent months before production began learning the tricks and the trades of a ranch hand. The crew members then discuss their various contributions in capturing the period and setting. It’s about what you would expect from a featurette of this sort though I found myself to be rather captivated by MacKenzie’s discussion around the film’s sound design, and it’s a shame that this didn’t get explored more.
The Behind-the-scenes featurette ends up being far more interesting than I would have expected, offering some interesting test footage of the actors alongside footage around the construction of the set. Through voice-over Campion explains what moved her to the make an adaptation of the novel, despite having no interest after first reading it, touching on the themes that drew her in. Some of her comments are repeated in the making-of (and I’m sure they’re lifted from the same interviews), though she shares a unique story here around how she was pretty much terrorized by a nanny when she was a child, and she incorporated that experience into this film and the threat Dunst’s character feels from Cumberbatch’s. These personal anecdotes and details around the themes that interested her make this one of the more worthwhile features here, at least of the Netflix produced material.
The Women Behind “The Power of the Dog” presents a 24-minute round-table discussion featuring Campion, Dunst, Seghatchian and Wegner (with filmmaker Tamara Jenkins officiating) recalling stories around the production. Some of the material is covered elsewhere but there is more discussion around a lot of the heavy planning that went into the film’s photography, going right down to having to properly plan the layouts of the sets before they were built so that the geography worked when getting the desired shots. There’s also a little bit of discussion around the adaptation of the novel, a topic only touched on in the other features, though even that is mostly limited to how Campion expanded Dunst’s character, whom she felt was underwritten in the source novel.
That discussion is then followed by a 13-minute audio-only conversation between Campion and composer Jonny Greenwood around the film’s score, the two sounding to be talking over Zoom or another similar application. There’s a bit of discussion around some of the compositions (like the “dueling” scene between Dunst’s piano and Cumberbatch’s banjo) but I ended up being most fascinated by the early discussion around the instruments, particularly how Greenwood used a Cielo in the same manner as a banjo to get the unique sound that’s at the heart of the score. An actual banjo was also used, along with the piano, French horn, and more. I liked the score for the film quite a bit so I did enjoy the conversation and exploration of it here.
The only Criterion produced feature to be included (and easily the release’s best one) is a new 13-minute interview with Annie Proulx, author of the story Brokeback Mountain. She appears to be here in a couple of capacities, one to talk about the western genre in the early 1900’s and how it morphed through the years into the 60’s (from Virginian author Owen Wister on through Larry McMurtry), and second to talk about Thomas Savage, author of The Power of the Dog, and how his work fits somewhere in between. She also talks a little about Campion’s adaptation, going as far as reciting a passage from the book and exploring how the filmmaker ended up visualizing it. This ends up being a wonderfully insightful and rewarding addition to the release, and I was a little saddened it felt so short.
The disc then closes with the film’s Netflix trailer while the included insert features an engaging essay by Amy Taubin, writing about the film’s representation of masculinity and how it departs quite a way from Campion’s other work.
Proulx’s excellent contribution aside and some quality content scattered about the features do end up feeling generic and not all that different from what most studios would do. They cover the film’s production well enough but that’s about it.
The features aren’t as involving or as insightful when compared to what can be found on some of Criterion's other Netflix licensed titles, but the 4K presentation does look fantastic.