2. The Power of the Dog (2021)
Jane Campion once said that she’d never make a film with a man in the lead role. But, after falling in love with the 1967 novel The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage, Campion clearly changed her mind. And we are all better for it.
More than a decade after the release of Bright Star, Campion returned to the big screen with The Power of the Dog, an absolutely devastating look at the oppressive nature of toxic masculinity and the impact it has on those forced to carry its weight.
The movie stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons as Phil and George Burbank, a pair of ranch-owning brothers living in Montana in 1925. When George marries Rose (Kristen Dunst) and brings her and her teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), to live with them, he unknowingly sets off a chain of events that will change all of their lives forever.
Set against the backdrop of the Old West, the movie shatters our romantic notions of heroic cowboys and blurs the lines of good and evil. Phil Burbank is the embodiment of a man’s man – a tough, dirty, uncompromising force that destroys everything in its path. By having a man as her main character, Campion taps into a perspective she has always avoided. It has a stunning effect, and The Power of the Dog feels like one of her most thematically rich movies because of it.
Femininity is not something intrinsic to women, nor is masculinity intrinsic to men. Both of them can exist inside of us together and Campion’s exploration of this is nuanced and thoughtful. Though she has focused primarily on the female perspective for the majority of her career, The Power of the Dog feels like a natural progression for her.
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1. In the Cut (2003)
Claiming the number one spot on this list is a film that, upon initial release, received the worst reception out of all Jane Campion’s films to date. Reviews were scathing and dripping with misogyny. Critics seemed more concerned with lead star Meg Ryan’s age and alleged affair with Russell Crowe – her co-star in Proof of Life – than they were with actually trying to review the movie.
But, in the years since its release in 2003, In the Cut has emerged as a masterful erotic thriller, a movie that showcases the very best of Campion’s artistry.
In the Cut, written by Jane Campion and Susanna Moore, based on Moore’s 1995 novel of the same name, stars Meg Ryan as Frannie, an English teacher living in New York City. Frannie leads a relatively isolated life, keeping to herself and obsessively writing down words and phrases for her upcoming linguistics book. Her only real friend is her half-sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a love-sick fool who can’t seem to stay away from guys who are no good for her. But, when a young girl is found dead, Frannie finds herself in the middle of a murder investigation. As she descends deeper into a sexual affair with homicide detective Giovanni Malloy (Mark Ruffalo), Frannie begins to wonder if the killer is closer than she thinks.
In the Cut expertly subverts the tropes of the genre. Sex in erotic thrillers is usually dangerous, and women are often punished for having it, but Frannie’s sexual journey sets her free. While most erotic thrillers of the late 80s and early 90s exposed the anxieties of men and irrational fears of women, In the Cut portrays the very real violence women face every single day.
In the Cut is surreal. Campion cuts from sensual scenes of flower petals falling gently like snow, to bloody, cut up body parts stuffed in a dryer. The unease is palpable, violence hovering just outside of every frame. Frannie is constantly being watched and it isn’t long before everyone in her life feels like a suspect.
Campion elevates this material in a way that she couldn’t with The Portrait of a Lady, and the most astounding thing about In the Cut is how boldly it deviates from the ending of the novel. In rewriting Franny’s fate, Campion gives her most maligned heroine the most triumphant ending of all.
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In an article published by The Guardian just before the release of The Power of the Dog, Jane Campion said, “Film-making set me free. Before I found it, I had a lot of energy, but I was lost as to how to express it or even be in the world.”
Jane Campion is one of the most influential filmmakers living today, her influence reverberating throughout the industry and inspiring a generation of new artists. From her trailblazing achievements to her commitment to telling complex, off-kilter, and unique stories, Campion has proven that women are more than capable of being both behind the camera and in front of it – that women’s voices matter.