The Power of the Dog
The first shots of Jane Campion’s intimate epic The Power of the Dog drop the viewer in the wild emptiness of 1925 Montana, among the dust, the golden light and a wave of cattle flowing through the rolling hills. What feels like spontaneous magic is in fact the product of the intense and tedious legwork done by Campion and cinematographer Ari Wegner in the 12 months before cameras rolled, in which they scouted locations and got to know the conditions and light on New Zealand’s South Island, which changed dramatically with the seasons. When it came time to shoot, they knew what they were working with. And the result is poetry.
Counting inspirations as varied as photographer Evelyn Cameron, painter Andrew Wyeth and Robert Bresson’s film A Man Escaped, Wegner and Campion use light, composition, some cinematic tricks and naturalistic visual effects to create this gothic Western that is as beautiful and transportive as anything Almendros or Lubezki has done. Outside, they use long lenses to capture the landscapes and the stark isolation of the place and time. The indoors aren’t much more inviting, especially in the dark and moody mansion that the brothers Burbank call home.
Instead of visual rules, Wenger has said they settled on values for the look of the film: “Unadorned, deliberate, nonjudgmental photography,” she told Cinematography World. “No emotionally manipulative camera moves, no shots that were trying to convince an audience about anything.”
That the “tricks,” including the shadow of the dog and the instantly classic doorway shot, are indistinguishable from the in-camera work is just a testament to Wegner’s achievement. And, lest you think the 38-year-old can be pinned down to one aesthetic, look no further than Zola.
— Lindsey Bahr