How Netflix is selling a story of masculinity in the early 20th century
Benedict Cumberbatch stars in The Power of the Dog, out now on Netflix after a limited theatrical release in the last couple weeks.
Directed by Jane Campion – her first film since 2009’s Bright Star – and set in 1920s Montana, the movie stars Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank and Jesse Plemons as his brother George. When the two encounter the widow Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Phil’s first reaction is to lash out with cruelty while George’s is to be more sympathetic. Eventually George and Rose marry, setting off a chain of events that will lead some characters down dark paths and others to more positive personal revelations.
With a solid 95% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and positive word of mouth from critics the movie scored well in that short theatrical run, so now that it’s available for everyone let’s take a look at how it was sold.
announcement and casting
The movie, announced in May 2019 as Campion’s return to feature film directing, came with Cumberbatch already attached. Dunst was cast the next month after Elizabeth Moss, originally slated to play Rose, had to drop out.
Also replacing a previously announced cast member was Plemons, who took the place of Paul Dano in late 2019. Most of the rest of the cast was added in early 2020.
the power of the marketing campaign
In June 2021 news came that Netflix declined an invitation for the movie to play the Cannes Film Festival, albeit out of competition. As usual, the two parties couldn’t agree on the festival’s requirement that movies appearing there be released theatrically in France.
Netflix released the first still in late July.
The first trailer (2.5m YouTube views) was released in August, opening by showing the general vibe of the cattle ranch worked by the Burbank family. There isn’t a whole lot of dialogue but you definitely get the sense of Phil’s insensitive cruelty as well as Rose’s compassion and protectiveness of her son.
The first poster, released at the same time, focuses on Phil and calls out the all-star cast as well as Campion on a very rough, weathered image that conveys the tone of the film.
While Cannes was out of the picture, the movie did screen at the Venice Film Festival and BFI London Film Festival in September as well as at festivals in both Toronto and Telluride among others.
In advance of the Venice screening the producers talked about bringing Campion back to the big screen after a decade away and more. Campion went on to win Best Director at Venice.
During the various festival press cycles both Cumberbatch and Campion were interviewed about the movie’s portrayal of toxic, harmful masculinity and how that’s often the result of repression and other factors, especially regarding sexuality.
Dunst was also the subject of a substantial profile where she talked about how this and other recent films she’s done are part of a transformation in her career to portraying more characters going through trauma and despair.
Campion and the cast all appeared at the New York Film Festival in October along with a screening of the film as the festival’s “centerpiece” selection. The movie was also added to the lineup of November’s AFI Film Festival and then also screened at BFI London in October.
Other interviews with Campion had her talking about this movie as well as how the film industry has changed for women directors and how she’s encouraged by those changes.
Campion was slated to receive the Director’s Tribute at the 2021 Gotham Awards.
Cinematographer Ari Wegner was interviewed about how he created the movie’s sparse, harsh look and feel.
The next poster, released in early November, shows Phil and Peter riding across the former’s ranch, the vast Montana sky taking up most of the background.
A new trailer (742k YouTube views) also came out at that time. It shows much more of the story in detail, from George meeting and marrying Rose to the ridicule inflicted on Peter for his gentle ways to the emotional distress Phil is going through as he clearly hides something from himself and everyone around him. It’s powerful and distressing, which probably sells the film well.
How working with Campion caused him some initial anxiety and how the production differed in scope and style from his super hero work were covered in another interview. He covered similar ground when he appeared on “Kimmel” but a New York Times profile was much more serious as he discussed the multiple layers of the sometimes terrible person he plays. When he showed up on “Late Night” he had fun with the fact that production involved him not showering for a while.
With the cast and crew on the AFI Fest red carpet, they all talked about the story, working with Campion and lots more.
The director got a profile of her own that covered how she worked on this film and what it means for her career as a whole. That was followed shortly by another interview with Dunst where she also focused on working with her real-life partner Plemons, something she also talked about on “Kimmel.”
There had been some promotion of the soundtrack prior but it intensified in the last few weeks as seen in a joint interview with Campion and composer Jonny Greenwood and another interview just with Greenwood where he talked about what kinds of themes and ideas he tried to channel.
A clip released just this week shows Phil angrily playing the banjo when he enters a room to find Rose playing piano, showing the strained dynamic between those two.
Throughout the marketing campaign there have been a few areas of emphasis:
First, the return of Campion to the director’s chair after more than a decade away. That absolutely needs to be noted and hopefully we won’t have to wait that long again.
Second, that Cumberbatch is a powerful actor who fully transformed to embody a character that is demonstrably terrible to everyone around him.
Third, that Dunst has evolved significantly as an actor to take on complex roles that speak to her personally.
All of that adds up to a strong campaign that, as many people have noted, could once again spur conversations around whether or not Netflix’s original productions are worthy of Oscar consideration. As has been the case with releases from other major filmmakers, it will be hard to ignore Campion’s return and the cascade of festival awards she’s accumulated so far. More importantly, though, the marketing makes a strong, consistent case for viewers to watch the movie as soon as possible.