The Oscars 2022 nominees won't be announced until February 8, but at time of writing, two films are topping experts' Best Picture predictions — and one of them is The Power of the Dog: a Montana-set western starring Benedict Cumberbatch as a rancher with a cruel streak, streaming now on Netflix.
The Power of the Dog marks the return of New Zealand-Australian director Jane Campion to the big screen, following the success of her detective drama Top of the Lake (2013-2017).
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It's her first feature since 2009's Bright Star — and her first film to centre on a male protagonist.
Campion is currently leading industry polls for Best Director and Best Adapted Screenplay. It's the closest she's come to the Oscars race since her 1993 film The Piano, which was nominated for eight Academy Awards (including Best Director, the second woman of seven ever nominated for that award) and won three (including Best Screenplay for Campion).
- Read: The Power of the Dog review
Her latest creative journey began innocuously — not with a forwarded script or a pitch, but with a novel, sent to her by her step-mother, a teacher of English, who thought she might like it.
The book was Thomas Savage's 1967 western The Power of the Dog: long out of print and virtually unknown to the general reading public before an editorial assistant at prestigious American publishing house Little, Brown and Company midwived a reprint into existence in 2001 — with an afterword by Annie Proulx (Brokeback Mountain; The Shipping News).
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Savage's novel, which has echoes of his own biography, is set in the kind of rugged Montana landscape he grew up in, in the 1920s — against the fading glory of the 'true west' and cowboy life.
"I had the most beautiful way of approaching it, which was with no agenda or ambition other than just to read the book," Campion recalls.
"So it just captured me. And the experience got more and more intense as the story went along."
The drama unfolds at a cattle ranch owned by the wealthy Burbank family, where sons Phil (40) and George (38) have taken over the business, living a somewhat hermetic, isolated existence — bachelors sharing their childhood bedroom, in a creaky old house whose grandeur stands at odds to the rough, hands-on work of ranching.
When George (played in the film by Jesse Plemons), the quieter of the two — a laconic plodder — unexpectedly marries a widow with a teenage son, the brothers' co-dependent dynamic is abruptly shattered, provoking a crisis in Phil.
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The presence of sensitive Rose (played by Kirsten Dunst) and her odd, effeminate son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) also seems to whet Phil's cruel, almost sadistic edge, as he proceeds to torment each, individually — before unexpectedly changing tack, and seeming to take the boy under his wing.
What in another novel might develop into a love triangle between Rose and the Burbank brothers instead segues into a more intriguing, enigmatic interplay between alpha-male Phil and teenage interloper Peter.
Proulx, in her afterword to Savage's novel, describes it as a "psychological study freighted with drama and tension".
"I really had a foreboding of something awful, and didn't know what it was," Campion recalls.
"I found it so exciting, that kind of crescendo and climax to the story that you don't very often get, really. And great economy of means with it [the writing] … and then this kind of twist at the end, that really took me by surprise.
"And I actually had to go back through the book, to see — where the hell did that come in? … It was a great experience."
When she read the novel, she'd just wrapped Top of the Lake, and recalls feeling tired; hardly champing at the bit for a new project.
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But the novel stuck with her, haunting her almost — and her passion for it dovetailed with a desire to return to feature film.
"I was thinking, 'Well, two hours is sweet, you know, compared to six hours [of TV]," she says, laughing dryly.
"And you know, it's rare to find a story that works so well narratively, that the characters are kind of exposed and explored and developed through the narrative, and so are the themes. It's a trifecta."
'The mystery of a human'
One of the most striking things about Campion's film — which is already generating considerable spoiler-alerted analysis — is how it wrong-foots the viewer at successive points in the narrative.
Wherever you think this story is going at any point, you're probably wrong.
It's a quality Campion relished in Savage's book.
"When I did the work of adapting the story, I kept going back to that experience of that first read of the novel, and saying, 'Well I've got to trust that experience, and try and lay this film out at this point in the same way, and hope that people will have the same experience I did — which is they just don't know what's happening here."
"Is this a real friendship? Is Phil gaming [Peter]?… there were just all those options [that] were alive for me. And I love that."
In the film, clear conclusions are not drawn.
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And in fact Campion has turbo-charged the sense of mystery around her characters' motivations, by stripping-out most of the backstory in Savage's novel.
"The sense I had was when I finished reading it… [was that] inside all of this backstory and all this explaining, there is a simple, forward-moving story," she recalls.
"And I never really think that backstory is a satisfactory explanation for the whole mystery of a human. You can say, 'Oh, this happened to them' — [but] does that really mean therefore they're like this? I don't think so. It's too mysterious to say there's any simple way of explaining anybody.
"So I like things just to be there and then you have to wonder about it."
Casting against type
Benedict Cumberbatch is also a frontrunner in his Oscars category, for his portrayal of the charismatic Phil.
As casting goes, it's classic awards bait: sensitive English actor transforms into rough-hewn rancher, a paragon of golden-age, American-pioneer masculinity.
To prepare, Cumberbatch went to a Montana 'dude ranch' for several weeks, to train in Phil's skills: not just riding and herding cattle, but tanning hide, whittling, even castrating a bull (for a key scene in the book and film).
Campion speaks about casting Cumberbatch with her trademark pragmatism, as less of a visionary decision than a practical one.
"I had a list [and] we [her co-producers] had a list … it's almost [like] you don't need a casting agent, [because] everybody knows who could finance a film — and so the list isn't particularly long. And he was definitely on my list, up the top there."
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"And then I [also] wanted somebody who really wanted to do this role, because it's a tough part."
As she tells it, Benedict's agent approached her, saying that the actor had read the material and was up for the task — and did she want to meet him?
"Someone coming to you like that is really important — because he's the one that's gonna have to do the work … he's gotta make the time in his schedule to go and do dude ranch and all that stuff in Montana, and enjoy it.
"And I wanted to be able to, you know, talk to him, not be afraid of him; if he [as a person] was really [like] Phil, it would be really difficult."
But Campion and Cumberbatch hit it off immediately.
"He [was] so easy to speak to," she recalls.
"And I think the two of us just kind of told each other we were doing the job. And then we were saying, 'Did I just offer it to him?' [and] 'Did she just offer it to me?' Anyway, I went and told my partners, 'I think I kind of offered it to him, I hope you guys are okay about that'," she laughs.
"After that I actually got letters from a couple of other fabulous actors — I'm not going to name them — who also said, 'I love this part, I want to do it'. But by this stage, I thought, you know, first come, first served; let's work with Ben.
"And I did have a feeling that despite everything on the surface that makes him seem like the wrong guy, he is the right guy."
By the time the film unwinds to its devastating conclusion, the viewer has a better sense of what Campion intuited in casting Cumberbatch.
And the extent to which the film succeeds — or resonates — for the viewer ultimately hinges on his performance, because the drama turns largely on the complexity of Phil's character.
As we discover, Phil contains multitudes. He's a man who can castrate a bull, roll a cigarette with one hand, and play the banjo with virtuoso skill; he's as comfortable cussing as quoting Ovid in Latin.
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Speaking to RN Drive, Cumberbatch said: "I think he sees himself in the world as someone who is — and he really is — very adept and secure in his masculinity. But it's shrouding a very large pain and a trauma and an unfulfilled authenticity."
"And ultimately, when he starts to open up — and the possibility of experiencing being loved and being able to love again is there — it's taken away from him. So for me, it's a real tragedy."
Campion describes Phil as "one of the most beautiful, complex portraits of a man in American literature".
"One of the reasons [Benedict is the right actor for the part] is that when someone has to put an enormous effort to get there with the part — because they're not American, didn't grow up with horses or whatever all the other requirements are — they tend to commit deeper … It's not in their back pocket, they've got to really stretch themselves for it.
"And I think with an actor as naturally gifted in so many ways as Ben is, this is a beautiful challenge at this point in his career."
The Power of the Dog is streaming on Netflix now.