From the unspoken inner turmoil of a Montana cowhand unable to openly live his true life, to the psychological anguish he cruelly inflicts on anyone he deems worthy of it, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog is a portrait of human torment in various shades. One sequence in particular stands out as an elegant distillation of this quality, a tense, taut, you might even say Hitchcockian musical exchange at the beginning of the film’s second act.
George Burbank (Jesse Plemons), overseer of a vast cattle ranch with his brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), aims to make a good impression on the visiting governor at a forthcoming dinner party. Knowing his new wife, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), dabbles in playing piano, he has a Mason & Hamlin baby grand delivered for the night’s entertainment. But Rose is incredibly shy, unsure of her skill. One afternoon, she closes all the doors in the house, ensuring a private moment to practice and pick her way through a jaunty tune. Then the camera slowly moves around her to reveal that Phil—who is quite unhappy with Rose’s overall presence in his life—has entered the home and is stealthily moving up the stairs to his bedroom, unseen. It’s only when Rose notices a door ajar that she realizes she’s not alone, and that’s when Phil’s sadism begins.
As Rose clumsily finds her way through the song, the faint plucking of a banjo can be heard over the notes. She pauses, unsure of what she heard. She starts again, and the banjo returns, more overtly this time. Reveal Phil, as his boot kicks his bedroom door open, his spurs announcing his ominous arrival for this demented duet. Though a roughneck fully at home on the range, Phil is an educated man, knowledgeable in the arts and adept at his instrument. His very presence is a reminder to Rose of all the dexterity that she lacks. She again tries to get through the song, and Phil’s plucking takes on a playful quality as he effortlessly moves through the notes and his own added flourishes, almost like a cat toying with its prey. Finally, Rose gives it one last attempt, but Phil’s banjo dominates her utterly, ending on a forceful, hate-filled strum that leaves no room for doubt as to who is in control—and yet not a single word has been spoken in the entire three-minute sequence.
Ari Wegner, the film’s director of photography, embedded herself with Campion a full year before production started, establishing the visual identity of the film with references ranging from realist mid-20th-century painter Andrew Wyeth to Evelyn Cameron, a photographer who documented pioneer life in the American West. But while Wegner’s canvas was quite large when it came to transforming the landscape of New Zealand into the big-sky majesty of 1920s Montana, Phil and Rose’s potent duet called for a claustrophobic mise-en-scène that ultimately pivots the film into the psychological thriller space.
“One of the things we were interested in is the idea that the threat of physical violence is scary when it’s obviously right in front of you, but psychological violence, there’s no escape, because it’s in your head. It’s always with you,” Wegner says. “What I love about this scene is it’s kind of a duel. It’s like a call-and-response, a sword fight, in a way. Even though he can see her, but she can’t see him, which is a kind of reoccurring theme. In Rose’s mind, that’s kind of the feeling all the time, that maybe Phil is watching. There’s no way to be secret or have any kind of privacy or secrets in this place.”
This idea was taken a step further in how Wegner’s camera frames Cumberbatch in the scene. As he stands perched above in his bedroom doorway, looking down on Rose like a hawk on a rabbit, the camera is still quite tight on him, at a low angle, with deep shadows at work. Wegner also found that going handheld on Cumberbatch was quite powerful and unsettlingly intimate, giving the sense of Phil as an abstract terror in Rose’s mind.
“Maybe it’s even that the camera has a freedom to move on him, while the camera, when it’s on Rose, it pushes in and stops, pushes in and stops, as if to say she’s really not in control of what’s happening,” Wegner says. “Even him kind of being up in the dark and her being kind of in the brighter, exposed areas, it was all very much planned to get that effect of the absolute control that he has over her and that she really is no match for him.”
The assemblage of Wegner’s footage was crucial as well. Though the sequence, like the entire film, was storyboarded and rigorously planned, the greater effect comes in what ideas were allowed to fall away. For example, editor Peter Sciberras says he had about an hour of footage to work with featuring Cumberbatch in the bedroom playing the banjo, but he and Campion narrowed down their selects until they were left with just a few striking angles that allowed them to play the scene like a classic horror reveal.
“A lot of it was reduction,” Sciberras says. “We really chose to just stay with her point of view, because what’s not seen is scarier than what is seen. Because in the end, it’s just a guy with a banjo.”
Both Sciberras and Wegner note that Oscar-winning production designer Grant Major conceived of the entire ranch house’s internal geography with this scene in mind, because of the way the spaces need to interact and collectively portray a power dynamic with the eyelines. Similarly, what you hear is hugely important to the scene’s effect. The creaking of doors as they first silence the howling wind outside and later reveal another presence, Phil’s catlike steps as he ascends the stairs, the kick and jingle of his boot and spurs, the mingling of banjo and piano—you could almost close your eyes and still experience the scene’s many movements in vivid detail.
“We talked about sound so much in the edit,” Sciberras says. “We started doing a lot of track-laying in the Avid, to really get a sense of how that works in this space and how we could tell a lot of story with sound and be quite meticulous in restraint with our shots. We really wanted to use all the elements to tell the story, because there’s a lot of psychological tension in the film that comes from that scene existing, I think.”
And to extend the collaborative nature of the sequence a little bit further, composer Jonny Greenwood was also involved as he consulted on what Rose’s little ditty should be.
“It obviously needed to be a tune that could be played on piano and on banjo, that was quite playful but then could have the menace come through,” Wegner says. “The tune itself is very uplifting. It’s a march. It’s a very Rose-type of a tune to choose, and then Phil’s interpretation, which is a riff on it and an artistic kind of cover—but his cover version is really mean. It’s a beautiful tune that he uses with such disdain.”
The resulting scene serves as a nexus for the whole of The Power of the Dog, where its many thematic and dramatic ideas meet with design and craft to tell a story that connects visually and aurally. In three minutes, without a word of dialogue, it instantly elevates the internal and external stakes of the story and sets the film’s heroine and its ostensible villain on their fateful paths.
“In many ways people would describe this as a Western, but for me, it’s more of a monster movie, like a vampire movie,” Wegner says. “And you would expect the house to be a refuge in this big, vast landscape, like it’s a boat on an ocean. It should be a safe place. But for Rose, that’s very much not the case.”