The Power of the Dog premiered at the Venice Film Festival on September 2, 2021. In a short time, however, much has already been written about writer-director Jane Campion’s latest feature film, one of the most awarded releases of 2021 and the nexus of a range of heated, high-profile debates. These debates revolved around the place of the Western in contemporary cinema, with actor Sam Elliot infamously challenging Campion’s right to direct a film in the genre1; its representation of queerness, with, for example, The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber bemoaning its ‘queer problem’2; and, coincident with the start of Oscar voting, Campion’s careless stumble into personifying white feminism’s glaring blind spot regarding race—when she framed the difficulty of her perennial competition with men for major directing awards against Serena and Venus Williams’ comparatively easy (in Campion’s view) challenges in professional tennis.3 While the intensity and diversity of these conversations no doubt speak to the strength of The Power of the Dog’s immediate impact, this article is motivated by the desire to comment on issues raised by the film that have yet to attract the wandering eye of mainstream film journalism to any sustained degree. And, in anticipation of longer-term discussions in the sphere of film scholarship, it approaches The Power of the Dog as an opportunity to revisit provocative questions about national cinema, genre and masculinity that Jane Campion’s cinema has evoked since the inception of her career. 

Our starting point is the ambivalence of Campion’s work on multiple grounds, including her categorisation as a New Zealand filmmaker, which is the subject of long-standing disagreement4. Yes, Campion was born in Wellington in Aotearoa New Zealand, yet since attending the Australian Film, Television and Radio School in the 1980s, she has primarily resided in Sydney, and her work in film and television demonstrates savvy negotiation of various nationally-oriented film funds well attuned to the transnational industrial conditions of contemporary, high-budget production. In our view, the slipperiness of Campion’s approach to national identity overlaps in an illuminating fashion with the idiosyncrasies of her approach to genre and gender-based conflicts, which she appears particularly compelled to play out against the backdrop of rugged natural landscapes. Moreover, the longevity of these preoccupations in Campion’s oeuvre has been misleadingly underplayed, we contend, in the critical conversation about The Power of the Dog thus far. 

Therefore, we present The Power of the Dog as an illustration of the latest phase of the filmmaker’s strategic use of New Zealand to achieve specific goals. For example, while The Piano successfully leveraged Campion’s New Zealand roots to firmly establish her feminist auteur brand, a much later phase saw Top of the Lake renew her reputation for generic risk-taking and social relevance within the context of transnational multiplatform television drama. The Power of the Dog thus revives the mutually beneficial dynamic between Campion and her native country that has sporadically come into focus over the course of her forty-year career as an acclaimed filmmaker. Furthermore, ambiguities regarding New Zealand’s role in performing a ‘transposable otherness’ – especially in support of American screen industries – are rife in The Power of the Dog, with Campion herself stating that she initially had strong reservations about shooting the film in her home country rather than Montana5. To engage with these thorny topics, we set the first wave of critical conversation inspired by the film against earlier films in the Campion canon that anticipated her deconstruction of toxic masculinity in the New Zealand-shot, Montana-set neo-Western.

 Elliot dismissed The Power of the Dog as a ‘piece of s***’ in large part due to its ‘allusions of homosexuality’6; in a robust rejoinder, Campion refers to ‘the West’ as ‘a mythic space’ with ‘a lot of room on the range.’ This view of the Western, as an open and permeable imaginary space, resonates with several earlier Campion works that (like The Power of the Dog) utilise the iconography of ‘the West’ to foreground conflicts related to gender. Campion’s first feature film, Sweetie, is a Sydney-set, offbeat family drama in which sisters, Kay and Dawn (nicknamed Sweetie), have opposing reactions to their dysfunctional upbringing—with protagonist Kay repressing her emotions and Sweetie aggressively expressing hers. In the film’s present, the relationship between their parents, Flo and Gordon, is on the rocks, and the end of the film’s second act involves a surprising interlude in which Kay and Gordon travel from Sydney to the Australian Outback in a last-ditch effort to recover Flo, who had fled the drama of suburban family life to work on a cattle station (where, in Kay’s words, ‘she got a job cooking for some jackeroos’). On the first night of their visit out ‘on the range,’ Flo sings a romantic folk ballad alongside a pack of young ranch hands, one strumming the guitar. On the second day, the surreal dimension of the family’s retreat to an idealised past becomes even more pronounced: two jackeroos in cowboy attire rehearse dance moves in unison against the sunlit background of a ploughed field, the sound of country rock music smoothing a cut to the courtyard at night, where Kay and Flo are passed among the cowboys, the only two women dancing (Figure 1). While the women enjoy themselves, Gordon camps in his car down the road (he feels ‘unwanted’), and Kay’s boyfriend, along for the ride, sulks on the margin of the action (‘it’s not my kind of music,’ he complains). The alternative way of life depicted at the ranch manifests most concretely in the iconography of the cowboy, which seems to represent a purer, less conflicted masculinity. Gordon is compelled to crash the party, parking on the edge of the dancers to reclaim Flo, their marital discord temporarily resolved and the ranch (having served its remedial function) abandoned for home.

Figure 1: In Sweetie (1989) the family matriarch, Flo, retreats from Suburban family drama to the Outback, which is surreally represented as a space of uncomplicated, retro masculinity.

Furthermore, despite the fact that many articles on The Power of the Dog highlight its deconstruction of ‘toxic masculinity’ as exceptional in Campion’s cinema7, many of her films atomize hyper-masculinity in a manner that complements Campion’s latest work, specifically its presentation of the main character and antagonist, Phil Burbank (played by Benedict Cumberbatch). ‘Toxic masculinity,’ a term dating back to the 1980s whose cultural weight and visibility has exploded in the past decade, is generally understood to refer to social norms about masculinity that harm people of all genders, as they dictate that men should be ‘aggressive’ and ‘dominant.’8 About Phil’s characterisation, Campion explains, ‘we’re dangling the charismatic aggressive masculine identity and deconstructing that.’9 Holy Smoke!, Campion’s 1999 film starring Kate Winslet and Harvey Keitel, does similar work with Keitel’s P.J. Waters. The introduction of his character, an esteemed cult deprogrammer who flies from the States to Australia to ‘liberate’ Winslet’s Ruth from the brainwashing she allegedly suffered under an Indian guru, humorously parodies P.J.’s hyper-masculinity, including his modern-day cowboy style. The intertitle ‘P.J. WATERS, CULT EXITER’ appears under the first image of P.J.  as he strolls confidently towards the camera, having just exited passport control in Sydney’s airport. Sporting aviator glasses, chewing gum, and carrying a sleek silver briefcase, he epitomises easy masculine authority. The non-diegetic song that accompanies P.J.’s introduction, Neil Diamond’s ‘I Am… I Said,’ deliberately pokes fun at P.J. arrogant self-regard, beginning midway through the song (at the start of the second verse) to highlight these particular lyrics:

Did you ever read about a frog
Who dreamed of bein’ a king
And then became one
Well except for the names
And a few other changes
If you talk about me
The story is the same one

But I got an emptiness deep inside
And I’ve tried
But it won’t let me go
And I’m not a man who likes to swear
But I never cared
For the sound of being alone

[start of chorus]

“I am”… I said
To no one there
And no one heard at all10

Figure 2: Holy Smoke! introduces Keitel’s P.J. as a caricature of macho self-regard, which the film subsequently dismantles through his battle of wills with Winslet’s Ruth (this battle set in rural, mountainous Australia).

The montage exaggerates P.J.’s effect on the strangers he encounters in the airport while obtaining a luggage cart, waiting for his suitcase at baggage claim, and emerging from the airport: with the subtlety of the Menthos commercials infamous at the time of the film’s production,11 passersby double take when P.J. walks past  them; a crowd fighting over a rack of luggage carts worshipfully observes as P.J. ‘takes control’ of the situation, decisively distributing the carts and ultimately staring down a younger, scruffier man to wrest control of his own cart; and finally, the camera itself pays tribute to P.J.’s arresting performance of masculinity when it slowly pans up his body from the leather cowboy boot nonchalantly propped on the edge of the baggage claim to the elbow resting on his jean-clad thigh, a stereotypically macho pose (Figure 2). In combination with the song lyrics, the hyperbolic montage implies that P.J.’s commitment to an old-fashioned brand of masculinity (indeed, Diamond’s popularity peaked in the late 60s/early 70s) is both unoriginal (‘the story is the same one’) and deceptive, masking an inner lack (an ‘emptiness’). It is also tragically self-absorbed, as the start of the chorus reminds us (the ‘I’ of the song asserting himself to ‘no one’); this fact is ironically spotlit in the struggle between Ruth and P.J. for domination that comprises the bulk of the film and wherein Ruth triumphs. That this battle of wills culminates in P.J., wearing a red dress and a single cowboy boot, desperately pursuing Ruth with the rugged terrain of rural Australia surrounding him (Figure 3) is relevant to the throughline of our take on Campion’s cinema, which consistently juxtaposes gender-based crisis and striking rural settings. 

Figure 3: In the climax of Holy Smoke!, P.J. pursues Ruth in desperation, his red dress popping against the neutral colours of the Australian landscape that engulfs him (Ruth blending into her surroundings).

 Campion’s interest in dismantling toxic masculinity by lampooning it is also evident in In the Cut (2003), Campion’s much-maligned erotic thriller about a serial killer who places an engagement ring on the finger of his dismembered women victims. Unlike the other films we discuss in this article, In the Cut  bears no trace of Western iconography, yet it illuminates her flexible approach to genre, which sees her bend the genre at hand to accommodate her perennial fascinations (and, according to our take on Campion’s fluid grasp of genre, Top of the Lake, which we elaborate on below, represents the merger of her selective appropriations of the erotic thriller and the Western). In In the Cut, the stark urban landscape of lower Manhattan graphically offsets the bewildering masculine performance of Detective Malloy (played by Mark Ruffalo), a wannabe tough guy whose emotional vulnerability is (like P.J.’s) gradually revealed through intimacy with Frannie (the film’s protagonist, played by Meg Ryan). 

In one of the film’s marquis scenes, Malloy delivers a rote pick-up speech to Frannie’s fascinated horror. ‘I got faggot hands… too soft,’ says Malloy, just before launching into an ‘I can be whatever you want me to be’ monologue (Figure 4). He offers to ‘romance’ Frannie, if she’d like, or ‘to be [her] best friend and fuck [her], treat [her] good,’ among other tantalising options. He will ‘lick [her] pussy,’ but he won’t ‘beat [her] up,’ is Malloy’s final stipulation. Frannie appears uncomfortably mesmerised during the recitation. Then, the interruption of Malloy’s partner, Richie, brings to light the latter’s history of domestic violence and his predilection for ‘fucking fat chicks’ (in Malloy’s words). The partners mercilessly subject Frannie to a misogynistic, racist and homophobic exchange that they play as well-worn; it compels her to quit the bar in disgust. This memorable moment in the film is one that contributed to In the Cut’s reappraisal in recent years, which was due in part to #MeToo’s cultural overhaul.12 Perhaps critics responded with enthusiasm to The Power of the Dog’s vivid anatomy of hypermasculinity and with censure to In the Cut’s because the 2003 film was ahead of its time? In a 2021 retrospective article on the film, James Croot writes, ‘This is a neo-noir, boasting provocative dialogue [and] what should now be seen as a prescient meditation on toxic masculinity.’13 P.J. and Malloy are obvious antecedents to Phil, which makes claims about Campion being ‘known best for her portrayal of the female experience’ and The Power of the Dog as an anomaly in its critical reflection on masculinity ring hollow.14 Campion’s statement regarding what attracted her to adapt The Power of the Dog—that it ‘challenges hyper-masculinity, exposing “the vulnerability, the brutality, and the fear, and even the femininity underneath it”’15—seamlessly applies to other Campion works, Holy Smoke!, In the Cut, and Top of the Lake among them.

Figure 4: Malloy’s pick-up monologue in In the Cut features an illuminating list of what he’s willing to offer prospective sexual partners, the scene as a whole attesting to Campion’s preoccupation with toxic masculinity and its deconstruction.

In The Power of the Dog, Campion deploys landscape to visually articulate Phil’s toxic masculinity. The film opens with a sequence portraying men at work in the Burbank ranch. A tracking shot of Phil walking through the arid, yet breath-taking landscape towards the house connects the natural environment to the Burbank’s residence (Figure 5). Despite their aesthetic differences, the natural landscape and the built environment are both marked as the realm of Phil’s domineering hypermasculinity. The house, modelled after Theodore Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill, is constructed as a quintessential masculine space with dark wood on the furniture and walls, and taxidermy mounted above the fireplace.16 According to set designer Grant Major ‘the house is kind of synonymous with Phil’.17 In the first part of the film, the house is haunted by Phil’s misogyny and bigotry. The scene in which Phil ambushes George (played by Jesse Plemons) upon his return home late at night to express his contempt for Rose (played by Kirsten Dunst) is a case in point. 

Figure 5: The Power of the Dog juxtaposes the spectacular natural landscape with the Burbanks’ residence.

The large, empty spaces of the Burbank house visually mirror both the imposing mountains and the vast plains through which the two brothers drive their cattle. The hostility of the natural landscape is conveyed through the use of a palette of cold hues, particularly blue and yellow. In turn, the spaces inhabited by the brothers and their men stand in stark contrast to the interior of the Red Mill, the restaurant ran by Rose, which is characterised by soft candlelight, cheerful laughter and the colourful paper flowers handcrafted by her son, Peter, who is played by Kodi Smit-McPhee (Figure 6). It is precisely the restaurant’s paper flower arrangements that provide the catalyst for Phil’s vicious denigration of Peter’s alleged effeminacy, an incident which, in turn, marks the beginning of the fraught relationship between Phil and Rose. 

Figure 6: The paper flowers provide the catalyst for Phil’s vicious denigration of Peter’s alleged effeminacy.

When Rose marries George and leaves the restaurant, she finds herself trapped in the oppressive masculine space of the ranch. Rose feels deeply uneasy in the Burbank house, her anxiety culminating during the failed dinner party with the state governor. The natural environment that surrounds the ranch is equally oppressive. This is particularly apparent in the scene in which Rose and Peter attempt to play tennis in an overgrown field surrounded by a group of sceptical cowboys. Rose only manages to hit the ball once before the latter is lost in the shrubs. After a very brief and unfruitful search for the ball, Rose announces she has a migraine and retreats to the house, where, however, she cannot find any reprieve as the building is still haunted by Phil’s presence (Figure 7). In this sequence, the surreal contrast between tennis, a symbol of bourgeois values and sophistication, and the rugged landscape of the ranch recalls the aesthetic juxtaposition of the piano and the beach in The Piano. However, while The Piano suggests a harmonious relationship between the untamed New Zealand landscape and the sensual nature of Ada’s music, The Power of the Dog seems to exclude the possibility of any positive encounter between culture and the rugged masculine landscape. 

Figure 7: Like The Piano, The Power of the Dog plays on the contrast between sophisticated bourgeois activities (tennis) and the rugged landscape.

Peter’s arrival at the ranch, however, marks a change in the characters’ relationship with space. The main narrative turning point occurs when Peter accidentally discovers Phil’s secret bathing spot and lurid magazines. In this scene, viewers are given an unequivocal insight into Phil’s closeted homosexuality, which is never explicitly acknowledged in Thomas Savage’s original novel. Here Phil’s intimate sexual desires are incarnated in both the river and the lush vegetation, which contrast blatantly with the arid landscape of the ranch. The fortuitous discovery of Phil’s secret bathing spot constitutes the beginning of a shift in the balance of power between the main characters. Phil gradually moves away from the house, over which he exerted unconditional power in the first part of the film, to retreat into the barn. The barn, a liminal space neither fully interior nor exterior, is both a hypermasculine working space and a shrine to Phil’s homosexual love for Bronco Henry. As Grant Major, points out, the barn embodies Phil’s complex personality: ‘The inside of the barn to me is the inside of the soul of Phil Burbank. It’s got this hard, masculine strength to it, but it’s also got these delicate areas.’18 The sequence in which Phil invites Peter to the barn represents another important juncture in the film narrative. As the two characters contemplate the landscape from the barn, Phil is surprised to discover that, like Bronco Henry, Peter is one of the few people able to discern the shape of a barking dog in the outline of the mountains. This shared appreciation for the unique feature of the landscape leads Phil to change his initial judgement of the boy. In reality, Peter’s understanding of the landscape is even deeper than Phil thinks, as in a later sequence the boy ventures in the mountains alone to gather the anthrax he needs to kill the rancher.

As in many other Campion films, landscape plays a crucial role within the narrative of The Power of the Dog. Referring to the majestic setting, Cumberbatch claimed that ‘Montana is as rich a character as the lead four principals in this psychodrama of love and loss and revenge.’19 Most discourses about the film focused on the use of landscape and, more specifically, on New Zealand’s ability to stand for Montana, the actual setting of Savage’s novel. Initially Campion had prioritised making the film in the US, where she visited a number of ranches; however, the filmmaker eventually decided to move the production to the South Island of New Zealand: 

I went to Montana to have a look at the ranch that Savage did live on […] But actually, it wasn’t the house of my imagination or the fiction of the story. And we didn’t find any ranch houses in Montana that could be renovated economically to tell our story. It became clear that it would be easier for us to work in New Zealand. We have an amazing landscape there. If it can be Middle Earth, it could be Montana for us.20 

Since the 1980s and 1990s, New Zealand has provided natural locations for international films and TV productions such as Willow, Hercules: The Legendary Journeys  and Xena: Warrior Princess. It was the release of Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) in the early 2000s, however, which gave the country global visibility as a hub for large international productions. Since LOTR, New Zealand has been used by international producers as a stand in for a plethora of both fantastical and existing places: Japan in The Last Samurai; Pandora in Avatar, and (most relevant to The Power of the Dog) the American Frontier in Slow West (which also stars Smit-McPhee). Referring to the peculiar versatility of its landscape, Thierry Jutel defined New Zealand as a ‘transposable otherness’.21 The availability of both a wide variety of natural landscapes and a large pool of skilled, English-speaking film actors and crews played a crucial role in popularising New Zealand as a destination for international productions. However, Alfio Leotta argues that New Zealand’s success as a ‘transposable otherness’ finds deeper roots in both its geographical position and in its settler history.22    

Before the release of LOTR, New Zealand existed in the imagination of most international viewers only as a land as fantastical and unknown as Middle Earth. Similarly, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the geographical remoteness of the country from the centres of the western world (North America and Western Europe) fostered the development of colonial fantasies about the country. For example, the settler rhetoric that defined New Zealand as ‘Godzone’ or ‘The Country of the Golden Weather’ conflated notions of familiarity and exoticism, purity and abundance, which, in turn, inspired utopian associations with the country in those outside of it.23 Since the beginning of its colonial history, New Zealand was constructed as a promised land, a ‘better Britain’ that could offer prospective settlers the chance of a new life. In this sense, then, the use of the local landscape as a versatile, transposable, and often idealised ‘otherness’ in contemporary screen productions is a corollary of the same colonial logic that conceived the country as the utopian version of places that already existed elsewhere.

Campion’s statement about the versatility of the New Zealand landscape (‘if it can be Middle Earth, it could be Montana’) acknowledges Aotearoa’s contemporary global reputation as the ‘transposable otherness’ par excellence. In an interview with Kim Hill for Radio New Zealand, Campion declared, ‘if there was an Oscar for best landscape country, New Zealand would win it hands down’24. More specifically, it also suggests the country’s allegedly intrinsic ability to stand in for other places, which, since the successful ‘New Zealand Home of Middle Earth’ tourism campaign, has become a prominent component of New Zealand’s national identity. Campion, who (as mentioned above) trained as a filmmaker in Australia, used New Zealand as the main location for several screen productions: An Angel at My Table, 1990; The Piano, 1993; Top of the Lake, 2013. The Power of the Dog, however, is the first Campion production shot in New Zealand, but set somewhere else. Despite this difference, the use of landscape in The Power of the Dog features a number of similarities to Campion’s previous New Zealand projects.

First, all of Campion’s New Zealand screen productions deploy exotic and awe-inspiring scenery to support the drama of her narratives (which, as outlined above, typically spotlight crises associated with gender and/or sexuality). More specifically, this deployment assumes international audiences’ unfamiliarity with the New Zealand landscape—and indeed, Campion’s New Zealand-set productions are all career high points, which is far from coincidental in our view. The spectacular New Zealand scenery constitutes an important selling point for The Piano, Top of the Lake and The Power of the Dog; thus, it is systematically foregrounded in the promotional material for these productions. Second, landscape in Campion’s screen productions is an active character (simultaneously attractive and repellent) endowed with transformative power. Furthermore, typical in these films is an outsider’s deep transformation through intimacy with the New Zealand landscape. In The Piano, for example, Ada’s encounter with the untamed landscape liberates her emotions and sexuality (which her ‘civilised’ lifestyle in England had presumably suppressed). Similarly, in Top of the Lake, the protagonist Robin (played by Elizabeth Moss) frequently retreats to a remote hut on the outskirts of Laketop, Robin’s hometown, which she left for Sydney in her teens after a horrific trauma. The natural environment dredges Robin’s repressed traumas, which also propel her to a wilderness settlement of disillusioned and rebellious women seeking enlightenment through exposure to ‘Paradise,’ the name of the land they temporarily occupy via a contentious lease (Figure 8).

Figure 8: This captivating image from Top of the Lake Episode 1, ‘Paradise Sold,’ conveys the ambivalent mixture of idealisation and illicitness that characterises Campion’s treatment of Aotearoa.

As this brief survey illustrates, the narratives crafted by Campion for New Zealand setting betray an outsider sensibility that is out of step with the nation’s simplistic embrace of the filmmaker as ‘one of its own.’ In most cases, Campion frames the main characters’ presence in the main setting as either exile or invasion (if not both). The Power of the Dog similarly frames the landscape as beguiling and potentially hostile. The ranch, personified by Phil and the cowhands, is repelled by Rose’s presence as if she were a toxic invasive species, and the wilderness around the ranch eventually provides Peter with the material to kill Phil. Obviously, Campion’s New Zealand landscapes are constructed to express and visually support the gender-based and sexual conflicts at the heart of her screen authorship. 

While the landscape’s unique visual properties represented an important factor in Campion’s choice to shoot The Power of the Dog in New Zealand, it was far from the only factor, and we suspect that the glorification of New Zealand’s natural beauty during the film’s promotion was meant (perhaps ingenuously) to diminish the economic concerns that more likely drove the decision. In fact, the production benefited from significant financial and logistical support from the New Zealand government. The New Zealand Film Commission (NZFC), the government agency responsible for fostering the development of the local screen industry, considered the film eligible for a NZ$6 million rebate on the grounds that it featured ‘significant New Zealand content’. Although NZFC chief operating officer, Mladen Ivancic, admitted that The Power of the Dog does not tell a New Zealand story, he claimed that a number of other factors constituted sufficient criteria to justify the investment, such as the nationality of Jane Campion and other key crew members; the existence of a potentially large local audience for the film; and the producers’ assurance of a nation-wide theatrical release.25 Another major draw of New Zealand for the producers was the overall film-friendliness of the Labour-led government fronted by Jacinda Ardern, which supported the production throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. New Zealand entered a strict lockdown in March 2020, and The Power of the Dog shoot was suddenly suspended; shortly thereafter, a number of cast and crew returned to Europe and the US.26 During that forced hiatus and in an attempt to limit the spread of Covid-19, the New Zealand government introduced policies which prevented foreign travellers from entering the country. When the production resumed in June of the same year, however, the New Zealand Ministry of Innovation, Business and Employment granted cast and crew border exemptions to allow them to rejoin the production. That decision, which a large sector of the New Zealand public objected to at the time, was justified on economic grounds—the interruption of the production caused by the border closure would put hundreds of New Zealand jobs at risk.27 The government’s exceptional accommodation of The Power of the Dog is only one of many signs of the nation’s preferential treatment of Campion’s work, which is considered economically and culturally valuable.

While Campion profited from the availability of funding, administrative support and spectacular landscape in New Zealand, the local government also capitalised on its association with the production. As mentioned earlier, the release of LOTR in the early 2000s had a drastic impact on the growth of the local screen and tourism industries, and since then the country has attempted to replicate that successful experience. The production of the film, which employed 27 New Zealand cast and 328 crew and required 13,500 accommodation nights, had a direct impact on the local economy estimated at NZ$30 million.28 More broadly the film also contributed to increase New Zealand’s visibility on the international stage. The NZFC investment in the film meant that its logo was featured prominently in the film opening titles thus highlighting the country’s association with the film. This association was further reinforced in the credits which stated: ‘this film was shot entirely in Aotearoa, New Zealand’. One of the conditions of the NZFC grant was that the filmmakers produced a featurette in which The Power of the Dog cast and crew talked about the experience of filming in New Zealand. The five minute featurette was featured in both the NZFC website and YouTube channel and, like similar paratextual material produced for LOTR and The Hobbit, it showcases New Zealand scenery and film infrastructures. The Power of the Dog won several prestigious awards and cemented the relationship between New Zealand and one of the most prominent internationally recognised filmmakers, Jane Campion. Although it is unlikely that the film will have a direct impact on international tourism, as at the time of writing New Zealand borders remain closed to foreign travellers, it will further reinforce the country’s reputation as one of the major screen production hubs in the world.   

The Power of the Dog—set in early twentieth century Montana, shot in Aotearoa, produced by a global streaming service (Netflix), and embraced by the NZFC as a local production—problematises the notion of New Zealand film and national cinema. The film also adds another layer to the fundamental ambivalence of Campion as a New Zealand filmmaker. The production history of the film points to the mutually beneficial relationship between Campion and her country of birth. Campion benefited from both the ‘film friendliness’ of the New Zealand government, which provided significant financial and logistical support, and the deployment of natural landscapes, which allowed her to refresh her authorial brand. In turn, New Zealand profited from the global exposure generated by its association with one of the most critically acclaimed contemporary filmmakers. The Power of the Dog, however, is not an isolated instance of this synergy. In 2014 Campion was nominated by the national government to join the Screen Advisory Board, a group of prominent filmmakers, which also includes Peter Jackson, James Cameron and Andrew Adamson, tasked with boosting the New Zealand film industry. More recently, Campion has shared her plan to develop a New Zealand Film School (modelled on the Australian Film, Television and Radio School where she learnt her craft) in order to ‘give something back’.29 Elliot’s sexist rant about Campion’s ‘blasphemous’ take on the Western included his incredulous question, ‘What the f*** does this woman from down there know about the American west?’ Yet, the broader film culture, which is very much an international affair, welcomed Campion’s generic innovations alongside her casting of Aotearoa in the role of American West. Her use of New Zealand to experiment with genre reinforces a noteworthy pattern in her work: the compulsion to dramatise traumatic aspects of gender performance with recourse to the iconography of the Western. Thus, we have stressed through this analysis of related works that dissecting ‘toxic masculinity’ with the support of rugged natural backgrounds is far from new to Campion’s cinema.


  1. Sam Elliott cited in Maron, Mark. “Sam Elliott.” WTF. Episode 1309. 28 February 2022. http://www.wtfpod.com/podcast/episode-1309-sam-elliott
  2. Kornhaber, Spencer. “The Power of the Dog Has a Queer Problem.” The Atlantic. 21 January 2022.  https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2022/01/the-power-of-the-dog-queer-problem/621316/
  3. For example, see Agarwal, Pragwal. “Jane Campion’s quip about the Williams sisters is peak white feminism.” Independent. 15 March 2022. https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/jane-campion-venus-serena-williams-white-feminism-b2035989.html
  4. See, for instance, her description as ‘one of Australasia’s most celebrated film directors’ in The Encyclopedia of Women and Leadership in the Twentieth Century (http://www.womenaustralia.info/leaders/biogs/WLE0293b.htm#:~:text=Jane%20Campion%20was%20born%20in,AFTRS)%20in%20Sydney%20in%201984) and her frequent identification as an “Australian director,” including by HLA, the talent agency that represents her (https://www.hlamgt.com.au/client/jane-campion/).
  5. Jane Campion cited in Hill, Kim. “Dame Jane Campion: the power of the filmmaker.” Radio New Zealand. 13 November 2021.  https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/saturday/audio/2018820385/dame-jane-campion-the-power-of-the-filmmaker
  6. Sam Elliott cited in Maron, Mark. “Sam Elliott.” WTF. Episode 1309. 28 February 2022. http://www.wtfpod.com/podcast/episode-1309-sam-elliott
  7. For example, see Keegan, Rebecca. “Jane Campion on ‘The Power of the Dog’s Toxic Masculinity and Why She Won’t Make a Marvel Movie.” The Hollywood Reporter. 10 September 2021. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-features/jane-campion-the-power-of-the-dog-interview-1235010819/ and Hill, Kim. “Dame Jane Campion: the power of the filmmaker.” Radio New Zealand. 13 November 2021. https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/saturday/audio/2018820385/dame-jane-campion-the-power-of-the-filmmaker
  8. Flood, Michael. “Toxic masculinity: A primer and commentary.” XY online. 7 July 2018. https://xyonline.net/content/toxic-masculinity-primer-and-commentary
  9. Jane Campion cited in Thompson, Anne. “‘The Power of the Dog’: Why Jane Campion Will Become the Third Woman to Win the Directing Oscar.” Indiewire. 19 January 2022. https://www.indiewire.com/2022/01/netflix-the-power-of-the-dog-jane-campion-woman-directing-oscar-1234680280/
  10. Diamond, Neil. “I am… I said.” AZLyrics. https://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/neildiamond/iamisaid.html
  11. See Jake Rossen’s “Candy Crush: The Bizarre History of Those ‘90s Mentos Commercials” to get a sense of the infamy of the Mentos commercials at the time of Holy Smoke!’s production. Mental Floss. 16 March 2017. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/93131/candy-crush-bizarre-history-those-90s-mentos-commercials
  12. For example, see Olivia Sudjic’s article “Sex and violence: what has changed for women since In the Cut?” (The Guardian. 29 November 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/nov/29/in-the-cut-susanna-moore), which is illustrated by a still image from precisely this scene.
  13. Croot, James. “In the Cut: Jane Campion’s most controversial movie now streaming on Netflix.” Stuff. 18 November 2021. https://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/stuff-to-watch/300456974/in-the-cut-jane-campions-most-controversial-movie-now-streaming-on-netflix
  14. Hill, Kim. “Dame Jane Campion: the power of the filmmaker.” Radio New Zealand. 13 November 2021.  https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/saturday/audio/2018820385/dame-jane-campion-the-power-of-the-filmmaker
  15. Jane Campion cited in Blyth, Antonia. “How ‘The Power of the Dog’ Writer-Director Jane Campion Explores ‘The Vulnerability, The Brutality, and the Fear’ of Toxic Masculinity.” DEADLINE. 26 January 2022. https://deadline.com/2022/01/jane-campion-the-power-of-the-dog-writer-director-netflix-oscars-magazine-1234919585/
  16. Wallace, Rachel. “Turning New Zealand Into 1925 Montana for The Power of the Dog.” Architectural Design, 30 November 2021. https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/the-power-of-the-dog-set-design
  17. Grant Major cited in Schachat, Sarah. The ‘Power of the Dog’ House None of Its Characters Could Love. Indiewire. 24 January 2022. https://www.indiewire.com/2022/01/the-power-of-the-dog-house-design-family-discomfort-1234691862/
  18. Grant Major cited in Wallace, Rachel. “Turning New Zealand Into 1925 Montana for The Power of the Dog.” Architectural Design, 30 November 2021. https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/the-power-of-the-dog-set-design
  19. Benedict Cumberbatch cited in Wallace, Rachel. “Turning New Zealand Into 1925 Montana for The Power of the Dog.” Architectural Design, 30 November 2021. https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/the-power-of-the-dog-set-design
  20. Jane Campion cited in Brady, Tara. “Jane Campion: If New Zealand can be Middle Earth, it can be Montana.” The Irish Times. 9 December 2021. https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/film/jane-campion-if-new-zealand-can-be-middle-earth-it-can-be-montana-1.4747366
  21. Jutel, T. 2004. “Lord of the Rings: Landscape, Transformation, and the Geography of the Virtual,” in Cultural Studies in Aotearoa edited by C. Bell and S. Matthewman. Auckland: Oxford University Press: 54–65.
  22. Leotta, Alfio. Touring the Screen: Tourism and New Zealand Film Geographies. Bristol: Intellect Books.
  23. Leotta, Alfio. Touring the Screen: Tourism and New Zealand Film Geographies. Bristol: Intellect Books.
  24. https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/saturday/audio/2018820385/dame-jane-campion-the-power-of-the-filmmaker
  25. Hunt, Tom. “Jane Campion Netflix film in line for $6m NZ government rebate. Stuff 10 September 2020. https://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/film/122703115/jane-campion-netflix-film-in-line-for-6m-nz-government-rebate
  26. Galuppo, Mia. Making of ‘Power of the Dog’: How Jane Campion Stayed on Track Despite an Extended COVID Shutdown. The Hollywood Reporter 6 December 2021. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/movies/movie-features/making-of-power-of-the-dog-jane-campion-covid-shutdown-1235054288/
  27. Hunt, Tom. “Jane Campion Netflix film in line for $6m NZ government rebate. Stuff 10 September 2020. https://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/film/122703115/jane-campion-netflix-film-in-line-for-6m-nz-government-rebate
  28. New Zealand Film Commission. “The Power of the Dog” https://www.nzfilm.co.nz/international/showcase/power-dog-0
  29. Blyth, Antonia. “How ‘The Power Of The Dog’ Writer-Director Jane Campion Explores “The Vulnerability, The Brutality, And The Fear” Of Toxic Masculinity”. Deadline 26 January 2022. https://deadline.com/2022/01/jane-campion-the-power-of-the-dog-writer-director-netflix-oscars-magazine-1234919585/

About The Author

Alfio Leotta is a Senior Lecturer in Film at Victoria University of Wellington. His primary research interests focus on the relation between film and tourism; national cinema; the globalisation of film production; film authorship and genre. His first book 'Touring the Screen: Tourism and New Zealand Film Geographies' (Intellect, 2011) examines the representation of landscape in a number of film productions shot in New Zealand which have subsequently been used as marketing tools to attract tourists to the country. He is also the author of 'The Bloomsbury Companion to Peter Jackson' (Bloomsbury, 2016) and 'The Cinema of John Milius' (Rowman & Littlefield/Lexington, 2018). Recently, he also co-edited 'Audiovisual Tourism Promotion' (Palgrave 2022) with Diego Bonelli. Missy Molloy is a senior lecturer in film at Victoria University of Wellington. She co-edited ReFocus: The Films of Susanne Bier (Edinburgh University Press, 2018) with Meryl Shriver-Rice and Mimi Nielsen, and her teaching and research focus on women’s, queer and activist cinemas. Recent publications include ‘Fetal imagery and alternative maternities in Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake’ (Mothers of Invention, Wayne State University Press, 2022) and ‘Indigenous feminism revitalizing the long take: Waru and The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open’ (Jump Cut, 2021). Her book Screening the Posthuman (co-authored with Pansy Duncan and Claire Henry) is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

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