What's the power of 'The Power of the Dog'? Why Jane Campion's film is winning big awards

The acclaimed psychological drama is up for a whopping 12 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director

Jane Campion accepts the award for Best Director at the 27th annual Critics Choice Awards in Los Angeles. Reuters
Powered by automated translation

Every dog has its day, as they say. But The Power of the Dog is having more than most. Jane Campion’s revisionist Western has gained admirers ever since it had its premiere at the Venice Film Festival last September, where it won Best Director.

On Sunday, it picked up two Baftas — not the clean sweep some predicted, with the film missing out on six awards, but winning Best Picture and Best Director for Campion, it surely sets out its path to Oscars glory in two weeks.

Scroll through the gallery below to see images from the Baftas 2022 red carpet:

That Campion also won the top prizes at the Directors Guild of America Awards this weekend and the Critics Choice Awards on Sunday is another firm indicator that the Academy Awards will be embracing her with open arms in a fortnight.

The significance should not be lost. Campion’s first feature film in 12 years, since delivering Bright Star, her biopic of Romantic poet John Keats, this take on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel is an exquisitely made, delicately etched portrait of a deeply flawed family in 1920s Montana. Benedict Cumberbatch has never been better as the brutish rancher Phil Burbank, riddled with jealousy, pain and confusion when his brother George (Jesse Plemons) marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), bringing her and her teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) into the family fold.

It would, of course, be amusing to know what, say, John Wayne or Sam Peckinpah, those old chroniclers of the American West, might make of this nuanced emotional drama. Certainly it rubbed actor Sam Elliott up the wrong way; on Marc Maron’s podcast, he took deep offence to the idea that it dealt with “the evisceration of the American myth” that is the Wild West.

“Well, what ... does this woman from down there — she’s a brilliant director — know about the American west, and why ... did she shoot this movie in New Zealand and call it Montana?” he ranted.

While this perceived lack of authenticity may have irritated Elliott, he’s in the minority (for her part, Campion retorted: “He’s not a cowboy, he’s an actor. The West is a mythic space and there’s a lot of room on the range. I think it’s a little bit sexist”). Indeed, Campion has found her own space “on the range”, with a film that views the American Wild West through a multitude of lenses — from the fragile Rose, who, owing to her drinking addiction, is reduced to hiding bottles in her home, to her sensitive son Peter, mocked but later befriended by Cumberbatch’s conflicted character.

The film has inevitably drawn comparisons with Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, for its portrayal of sexuality in the cowboy community, and it should go one better than that and win Best Picture at the Oscars (Lee’s film, shockingly, lost to Paul Haggis’ Crash, a cloth-eared look at race relations in Los Angeles that has not aged well).

For Netflix, the company behind Campion’s film, if The Power of the Dog wins the top award on March 27, it will be the streaming platform's first Best Picture winner, a huge triumph for a company that has made a point of supporting directors making original work. Campion has thanked Netflix for its unwavering support through the Covid-19 pandemic, which resulted in filming being suspended for months. It’s background like this that makes the film’s artistic achievement even more triumphant.

As rich as the performances are, the film’s visual elements — the cinematography by Ari Wegner, the production design by Grant Major in particular — prove the artists are working at the top of their game. Were it not for Denis Villeneuve’s splendid sci-fi epic Dune, which claimed five Baftas on Sunday night in the more technical categories, The Power of the Dog would surely dominate the Academy Awards.

Beyond Campion’s artistic achievements, the film is another step in the right direction in recognition of female filmmakers. For years, Campion was in that small club of women who had been nominated for a Best Director Oscar (for The Piano, again), alongside Sofia Coppola (2003’s Lost In Translation) and Lina Wertmuller (1975’s Seven Beauties), without any woman taking home the prize.

That embarrassing statistic finally changed in 2010, when Kathryn Bigelow won for The Hurt Locker. And last year, Chloe Zhao became the first woman of colour to win the Oscar for Best Director for Nomadland — still only the second female to hold aloft the statue.

Now Campion, the first woman to be nominated twice in the category, seems destined to continue this recognition of female talent. She’s up against Steven Spielberg (for West Side Story), who she lost to when she was nominated for The Piano and he won for Schindler’s List.

But Hollywood was a different place then. Films such as The Power of the Dog show how far the industry has come, recognising the importance of diverse voices and stories. The ripple effect of Campion’s triumphant awards season are only just beginning to be felt.

The 94th Academy Awards will be held on Sunday, March 27, at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, California

Updated: March 14, 2022, 1:31 PM