The Power of the Dog, director Jane Campion’s first film in 12 years, isn’t easy to watch—but it is absolutely beautiful, with its jagged purple mountainscapes, desolate golden plains, and waving wheat dripping with blood in the winter sun.
“I had a note early on, something like, ‘Iconic images, plus shoot the actors,’” says cinematographer Ari Wegner. “And I think it’s actually almost that simple.”
The actors in question are Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons, who play cattle ranching brothers Phil and George Burbank in Montana in the 1920s, a place and time in which being a certain kind of man—tough, gruff, emotionless—was everything. At least it is for Phil, who can’t handle it when his brother marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), who brings her fragile son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), to live on the ranch. Peter is everything Phil hates—weak, artistic, and unashamed of it—and their interplay drives this unnervingly tense Western psychodrama.
The landscape offers parallels to the characters. “We’re in the midst of this barren, inhospitable landscape,” says Wegner, who won the Variety Artisan Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival for her oeuvre, which also includes Zola and Lady Macbeth, “but you’ve got these delicate little oases.”
The mountains the viewer sees, it turns out, are not in Montana, but in Campion’s native New Zealand. “The reality is [Montana] is a lot more built up than it was in the ’20s,” Wegner explains. “In New Zealand, you can turn 360 and not see any kind of development.” At screenings, she notes, not even locals noticed the difference. “We’ve had plenty of people say, ‘I’m from Montana—where did you shoot?’ So I think it’s a natural fit.”
The above scene, shot in an area called Home Hills, about two hours from Queenstown, comes early in the film, when Phil stares off at something his cowhands can’t see—the shadow of a dog cast across the mountains. But the image is much more than just a shadow. It’s related to the biblical reference in the film’s title, which comes from Psalms 22:20: “Deliver me from the sword, my darling from the power of the dog.” As Campion told IndieWire, the power of the dog is “all those deep, uncontrollable urges that can come and destroy us.”
One of the biggest challenges for Wegner was how to portray that shadow. “It was something that Jane and I were both super-nervous about,” she says. “It’s written about really beautifully in the book, but the difference in a film is you actually have to show something.” At the same time, the shadow had to be obscure, because not everyone is supposed to see it; the viewer is given a choice. “It’s one of the things that was really important to us—to not make a film that told you how to feel at every step of the way.”