Spoiler alert: This article discusses the ending of the book and the film “The Power of the Dog.”
There has been a buzzy discussion among audiences who have seen Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog.” It has to do with the artful, understated ending of the film, which has inspired collective questions of “What just happened?” even from those who paid close attention to the dark, subtle shifts in the plot and the violence buried just under the topsoil of the story’s surface.
But that final moment you see in the movie wasn’t always what Campion envisioned at first for the her Western, the clear front runner in this year’s Oscar race with a dozen nominations. Yes, a murder is committed at the end of the movie (as described here in this explainer), but it’s hidden in plain sight instead of being spelled out more clearly as Campion and her team initially planned.
“We had a beautifully crafted shot, which would have been the last shot of the film,” the film’s Oscar-nominated editor, Peter Sciberras, told TheWrap. Why and how that ending was scrapped, he said, “is a testament to Jane’s confidence and bravery as a director.”
The film’s story concludes with the sudden death of 1920s Montana rancher Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch). A doctor opines that Phil might have had contact with deadly anthrax, which is common among diseased cattle. Then we see the teenager Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) holding a rope in gloved hands and watching his mother (Kirsten Dunst) and stepfather (Jesse Plemons) kiss outside his window.
Campion filmed a brief, additional sequence after that image of the happy couple in the window that she planned to insert just before the final creidts.
“It was a slow pan across Peter’s desk in his room, which showed a medical book on his desk,” revealed Sciberras. “And then the camera landed on the definition of anthrax in the book. And that was the last shot of the film.”
For the audience, this would have explicitly connected Phil’s untimely death to Peter’s knowledge and cunning of how to use anthrax as a poison. “That’s the exact thing that the novel does,” Sciberras pointed out.
In Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, which Campion adapted faithfully (including by deploying roman numeral chapter headings), the very final paragraph consists of this incredible 71-word sentence:
“In those black books, one August afternoon, (Peter) had found that anthrax – blackleg they called it out there – was a disease of animals communicable to men, and that it finds its sure way into the human bloodstream through cuts or breaks in the skin from a man’s handling the hide of a diseased animal – as when perhaps a man with damaged hands will use a diseased hide in braiding a rope.”
In the editing room, Sciberras initially had mixed feelings about losing the “anthrax ending,” believing it might be the coup de grâce that the movie needed.
“We had it in the cut and as an editor, to be honest, I was kind of on the fence about losing it,” he said. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, some people in the audience won’t get this (without the anthrax definition).’ But at the same time, we were railing against it.”
As much as the revelation works on the last page of Savage’s novel, “it felt kind of like a really basic idea” on the screen, Sciberras said.
Campion and Sciberras tinkered with the editing so that the film included more subtle clues in the Peter subplot regarding his intentions to kill Phil.
“And then we got to the point where our main consideration was that we wanted the audience to be looking around at everything at the end and not coming in on one specific thing,” Sciberras said. “So not the word anthrax being the last image of the film, but instead Peter looking at Rose and George in the window. It felt like more of a mystery.”
Sciberras was present at the movie’s one and only test screening, where the current final scene was shown. He remembered the beguiling effect that this ending, sans the definition of anthrax, had on the audience.
“You could just feel that thing of audiences turning and talking to each other,” he said. “You know, saying, ‘What happened and who did it and how did he do it?’ That’s such a great gift to leave with audiences. It was the emotional context rather than the plot context – that was the thing that won out in the end.”
And for that, Sciberras directs the credit to Campion.
“Jane’s such a great editor herself,” he said. “She just knew that ending the film and going to credits would have a whole different power to it this way. And it let her to do that thing she does so well – to investigate and turn up ideas and delve into all the gray.”
Sciberras considers his proudest moment in the film the plump-with-meaning nighttime barn scene between Peter and Phil, which twists the narrative toward its deadly conclusion. “It’s the scene where Peter takes control of the story all of the sudden,” he said. “We wanted to show the subtle shift in their relationship and the tension there, which is calibrated and dangerous and has so many layers. And all the atmosphere that went into it.”
He added, “That scene was just catnip for an editor. It’ll be one of my favorite scenes until I finish my career.”
“The Power of the Dog” is available to stream on Netflix.