Filmmaker Jane Campion is one of the foremost talents at directing films that look stately at first glance, but soon reveal themselves to have the kind of repressed desire and psychic violence that broils within humans. That inner turmoil feels more and more prevalent, forcing you to go back after the film is finished to see what you may have missed, and in most cases, you’ll find a master at work delicately directing performances and the space between them with bone-deep emotional intensity. The Power of the Dog is among her greatest works and arrives in a two-disc 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection that sports a handsome 2160p picture aided by Dolby Vision HDR and a handful of supplements that reflect upon this powerhouse drama. This release comes Recommended!
Back when I first watched The Power of the Dog, I was initially taken by the gobsmacking beauty that Campion was able to retrieve out of shooting in New Zealand as a stand-in for the American frontier in Montana. There’s a lot of romanticism around the American frontier, especially when it comes to the early 1900s as industrialism had firmly taken root in the landscape. Thomas Savage’s novel even extends that unromantic look at the magic of the old west, setting up the partnership between his prose and Campion’s incredible skills for adaptation wonderfully.
The Burbank brothers are wealthy ranchers. George Burbank (Jesse Plemmons) is the businessman of the two, but also the more outwardly soft and kind one. Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the king of the ranch; a severe, somewhat jaunt and handsome man that can castrate a bull in the same time it takes him to inspire fear and awe in other humans. When George starts a romantic tryst with Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), a local widowed restaurant owner, Phil lashes out with eager cruelty, taking this woman as someone who’s encroaching on the strongest relationship he has with another man. And when Rose moves in with the two, Phil’s anger gives way to something much deeper and secret.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance as Phil is rightfully lauded. Where I’ve found personal misgivings with the certain stolidity that comes off the famous British actor in his various performances, I’ve found the opposite in The Power of the Dog. It’s a performance that feels so effortlessly calculated. Well, until it isn’t and the character really breaks down to showcase the depth of their love, how it’s been stored away and compartmentalized when it should be let free. Even though Campion’s focus is always on Cumberbatch when he’s dominating the frame, it’s a feat in itself to showcase the vulnerability stuck under layers of ego and ID.
In The Power of the Dog, repressed emotions are everywhere and the characters are dealing with them in their own ways. In Rose’s case, she turns to drinking and becomes more and more frail as she retreats inward from the torment enacted by Phil. In George’s case, his obliviousness to Rose’s failing state is cast against the uneasy relationship with his brother. George hasn’t felt this way romantically about another human and the happiness is somewhat blinding him to what’s actually going on with Phil. Campion captures it all breathlessly.
As with any film from Campion, you’re left with a raw sense of intimacy and secret torment. For the lives of these characters have just briefly been detailed, and their feelings reach outside of the screen to live on within the viewer. While that may sound like a load of hooey, it’s at least what I feel when watching Campion’s physical and emotional authenticity at work.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-rays
Ranch hands mount up and get to work in The Power of the Dog with Criterion’s two-disc (BD-100 for the 4K and BD-50 for the Blu-ray) release that comes housed in their standard clear Scanavo case. As is Criterion’s custom, there’s a booklet with essay and transfer notes included as well. The 4K disc boots up to a standard menu screen with options to watch the film, set up audio/languages and choose subtitles. The Blu-ray disc boots up with options to watch the movie, explore the timeline, view chapters, browse supplements, and set up audio and video. Jonny Greenwood’s score plays over the static menu screen on both discs.
The Power of the Dog has received a very handsome 2160p presentation framed in 2.28:1 and sourced from a 4K digital master. The film in itself is not meant to be the kind of lush, eye-popping, demo-worthy material that you’d see littering the wall at your local Best Buy. Cinematographer Ari Wegner and Campion herself have discussed how using an Arri Alexa LF digital camera allowed them to shoot on digital but with the classic widescreen composure offered by shooting on film. They used Panavision Ultra Panatar lenses to achieve that classical, statelier image, plus New Zealand is not the perfect stand-in for 1920s-era Montana without some serious color timing.
Simply put, this new 4K presentation is the closest to the source we’ll ever get at home. When comparing this new presentation with the 4K Dolby Vision stream from Netflix, I’m immediately drawn toward the finite, higher-frequency details that come through clearer here than on streaming. The dirty, sweat-stained beard hair on Cumberbatch’s face ends up being a key highlight, and the cuts to those breathtaking exteriors look truer than ever, with the encode capably handling the highlights without clipping anything. The Dolby Vision HDR layer is very delicate, bringing added depth to all the drab, darker interior colors used to decorate the ranch the film takes place at. Black levels have gained some added depth as well, looking inkier than they do on streaming. Bitrate is healthy as well and the source is of course remarkably clean.
Jonny Greenwood’s lush, graceful score is the real star with the new Dolby Atmos soundtrack. Dialogue is clear and mostly relegated to the front channels, but Greenwood’s score envelops you and gains some added height. If we’re talking about what it means to feel like a theatrical experience at home, this soundtrack is an accurate representation. Those bone-deep sounds created by Phil’s banjo plucking even get some added dynamism. The surrounding channels do a terrific job at distributing those rushing winds and galloping across vistas. A really pleasing presentation, to say the least.
Criterion has supplied this release with some supplements previously produced by Netflix for the release of the film in 2021, plus a new interview with novelist Annie Proulx that serves as a great dissection of Thomas Savage’s novel. If Campion set out to demystify the American frontier, then Proulx’s assessment backs up that bold statement by drawing direct connections between Savage’s prose and Campion’s adaptation. Proulx is a novelist who is no stranger to the tangle of neuroses and desires that result from repression, and she’s a delight to hear give even more anecdotes that only add to the film’s mastery.
While the supplements are a bit spare and limited to what Netflix already produced for the release of the film, Criterion’s new 4K Blu-ray and Blu-ray release of The Power of the Dog presents one of 2021’s best films in a handsome 4K transfer and with a rather wonderful Dolby Atmos soundtrack. If you’re a fan of the film and want the absolute best presentation, then I urge you to pick up this release rather than watch it on streaming. This release comes Recommended!