Best Director

Jane Campion
The Power of the Dog

It’s nigh impossible to engage with Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog without revisiting her breakthrough feature The Piano, a film for which she was also awarded LAFCA’s best director honor — marking the first time the organization bestowed the accolade on a woman.

Nearly three decades later, the parallels between the films are too apparent to ignore: The arrival to a remote ranch of a bride who hardly knows her husband with a difficult child in tow. An illicit romance with a rugged man with a taste of sophistication. The transport of a grand piano by a band of indelicate hired hands.

There are departures, of course, not least Campion here centering her story on not a woman, but a man: Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), a hypermasculine rancher who masks complex multitudes with cunning cruelty and poor hygiene. That Phil earns viewers’ empathy by the end is a testament to Cumberbatch’s nuance, yes, but also the woman who both pushes him to profound depths and creates space for the subtlest of expression.

This domestic drama unfolds against the otherworldly backdrop of New Zealand’s South Island, standing in for 1925 Montana. Campion, along with cinematographer (and fellow LAFCA honoree) Ari Wegner, captures the majesty of both the landscape and the characters framed against it, and magically obscures the phantom image of the titular canine until just the right moment.

And about that ending: Shocking yet inevitable, Phil’s fate will stand as one of cinema’s all-time great reveals that in a beat transforms villain into antihero and victim into villain. It takes an assured hand, and confidence in one’s audience, to subtly lay the groundwork for such a turn without relying on flashback — a masterful conclusion to Campion’s Western of exquisite beauty and brutality.

— Annlee Ellingson