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Jane Campion Is Not Alone: Women Are Reinventing the Western, One Movie at a Time

Telluride: "The Power of the Dog" and "Bitterbrush" are only the latest examples of women directors taking charge of the Western.

“Bitterbrush”

The red desert and horses draw from a familiar playbook, but almost everything else in Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog” upends expectations. The writer-director’s triumphant first feature in 12 years transforms Thomas Savage’s novel into a riveting and immersive study of Western motifs, along with the boundaries that have limited it for generations. She’s on brand and on schedule: Campion is the kind of visionary auteur who deserves to work at her own pace, and “The Power of the Dog” arrives as the Western faces fresh scrutiny through a slew of new works.

Returning to the sexual inquisitiveness of “The Piano” and “Sweetie,” the New Zealand filmmaker uses the ambiguous dynamic between her characters to build a tapestry rich with thematic implications (read Anne Thompson’s interview with the director here). Though ranch owner Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) initially bullies the openly gay Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who moves to the Montana property after Phil’s brother (Jesse Plemons) marries Peter’s mother Rose (Kirsten Dunst), the chemistry between each of these characters continues to evolve, as it becomes clear that Phil’s tough-guy demeanor masks deep-seated insecurities about his place in the world. And he’s not alone.

Though ostracized, Peter emerges as the drama’s only truly liberated figure, a man fully in touch with his feminine side (Smit-McPhee has said that he can relate). Peter’s mother, however, spends much of the movie burdened with the severe alienation of her surroundings. The movie explores that struggle with a degree of empathy the genre has only recently embraced, most prominently through Frances McDormand’s somber Fern roaming the American West in “Nomadland.”

When “Nomadland” made the rounds during last year’s awards season, director Chloé Zhao’s trenchant look at a woman adrift in America’s dustiest landscapes birthed a flurry of articles about its approach to Western motifs, and the way they synched with a wider trend of women reinventing the Western, one movie at a time. But that story is far from over.

Kelly Reicherdt led the charge, beginning with the textured “Meek’s Cutoff,” which turned the Oregon Trail and the man who navigated it into a clusterfuck of mansplaining that led its wanderers to a series of dead-ends. Later, one of the mini-stories in the director’s “Certain Women” explored the isolation of a young ranch girl (Lily Gladstone) who — like some of the protagonists in “The Power of the Dog” — struggles with the proper vessel for her sexual identity. Reichardt’s “First Cow” looked back at the 19th century myth of the American frontier through the lens of two wanderers, one an immigrant and the other a cook, who find catharsis in their joint desire to build a stable life in a wild country run by wealthy men disinterested in supporting such ambition.

“The Power of the Dog”

Netflix

Meanwhile, Zhao set the stage for “Nomadland” with her gentle study of an Indigenous rodeo star in “The Rider,” while Anna Kerrigan’s debut “Cowboys” (which this writer still hasn’t seen) followed a young trans man whose father forces him to journey deep into the Montana wilderness. Now comes Campion with “The Power of the Dog,” and it’s no surprise that a master of narrative subversion adds a potent new dimension to this recent trend. Following its premiere in Venice, the movie screened in Telluride — a small Colorado town that looked like an extension of her film’s hermetic universe.

“The Power of the Dog” wasn’t the only Telluride movie to feature a woman director reexamining the framework of Western storytelling. “Bitterbrush,” an under-the-radar documentary gem premiering at the festival, finds director Emelie Mahdavian tracking the experiences of two cowgirls working a lonely Idaho ranch during its off season. With her second feature (following “After the Curtain”), Mahdavian has made an entrancing non-fiction study of hardened femininity and companionship. Though dominated by Western archetypes — leather saddles and cow herding galore — Mahdavian’s chatty subjects, Hollyn Patterson and Colie Moline, prove to be a far cry from John Wayne swagger. As the movie follows them through a season of outdoor rituals and dinner talk by the fire, poeticizing their routine by setting it to Bach, they emerge as shrewd and sensitive caretakers of America’s most remote locales.

“The Power of the Dog” and “Bitterbrush” screened at Telluride as complementary works for a world in the process of readjusting its myths and reinventing the genres that reflect them. calling these “feminist Westerns” is too limiting; these are Westerns with a more expansive perspective than their the canon’s classics.

Campion always resists pressure to discuss her work in terms of her gender (and did so, once again, during a Telluride tribute discussion), but “The Power of the Dog” is the gaze of a filmmaker keen on turning the genre’s traditional masculine posturing inside out. She recontextualizes the Western male figure by viewing his arrogance as a defense mechanism for repressed desire, erotic or otherwise. She also recognizes, in Dunst’s character, the plight of the Western woman in more vivid emotional terms than the genre tends to acknowledge.

Moline, one of the subjects of “Bitterbrush,” came to Telluride and found a kindred spirit in Campion’s approach. “I have never seen a Western that was so accurate,” Colie said during a Q&A for her documentary. “I was incredibly impressed and taken aback. … The issues as far as being a woman and dealing with solitude is so accurate. I was blown away and so appreciative.” She added that she was often frustrated by the gaps in representation in Western storytelling. “A lot of the issues there are ones you don’t find in Western films, so I really appreciate that because it is a reality for the American West, even if it’s not written down,” she said.

Mahdavian, her director, said that “Bitterbrush” was made without the burden of Western precedents. “I felt as a woman living in the community who loved the land that I had just as much insight as John Wayne,” she said. Asked by a moderator how the rapt audience could help support her work, Mahdavian was precise. “Tell people that you like seeing films that are made from the headspace of women,” she said. Consider it done.

“Bitterbrush” is currently seeking U.S. distribution. “The Power of the Dog” will be released by Netflix on November 17.

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