[‘THE POWER OF THE DOG’ Review] Campion’s methodically-paced Western lassos repressed homosexuality, calculating revenge

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Travis Leamons // Film Critic

THE POWER OF THE DOG

Rated R, 128 minutes.
Director: Jane Campion
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie, Keith Carradine, Frances Conroy, and Adam Beach

“When my father passed, I wanted nothing more than my mother’s happiness. For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?”

These words open THE POWER OF THE DOG. And much like the quotes an author chooses to precede a work of literature, they often go overlooked by the reader. It isn’t until you finish and go back to the start that you begin to see why the author included the passage. This is the case with Jane Campion’s latest. The narration could easily be dismissed. It is nuanced, though direct with its meaning. The orator is Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a lanky priss interested in biology and seemingly out of place on a Midwest ranch in 1925. Peter’s debut is assisting his widowed mother, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), in a small dining room, waiting on a dozen liquored-up cowboys and being called “Nancy” because of his effeminate demeanor.    

Among the dinner guests are Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons, respectively). Phil is two years older than his brother George, and they couldn’t be more different. George is feeble-minded, stout, and amenable. Phil is educated, lean, and rough. Campion takes her time introducing the brothers and the mother and son before putting all four under the same roof. Looking to loosen the reigns in herding cattle – a vocation he’s been doing with his brother since the turn of the twentieth century – and move towards high society (or Sassiety, as Phil likes to call it), George takes Rose as his wife.   

Marital bliss is met with Phil’s blistering resentment. He smells something awful, a foul stench emanating beyond his sweat-stained clothes and the fresh cowpies now dried and caking his boots. Phil believes Rose is with George for his money. Peter’s reappearance in the summer after university schooling hits Phil differently than when they first crossed paths months earlier. As he psychologically torments the mother, Phil takes a considerate interest in Peter, showing him the ropes of being a ranch hand just like his former mentor Bronco Henry groomed him. 

Phil Burbank is a vindictive son of a gun played with vicious panache. Campion takes what would be a scenery-chewing supporting heel in an old western and makes him the focus. Cumberbatch’s steely-eyed countenance, weatherworn like the hat on his head, is a menace. He speaks his mind regardless of who is in earshot, while milquetoast George prefers not to raise his voice. Unlike the rest of the cattle wranglers, Phil does everything from sheering hide to castrating steers without gloves, just to show the rest how much of a man he is. But it is what he does in the wilderness, away from prying eyes, where Phil is most liberated. He acts out homoerotic fantasies built on his past relationship with the deceased Bronco Henry. The reveal isn’t meant to shock. If anything, it demythologizes the ways of the West. Or why Phil doesn’t like change. Seeing his brother happy and in love is a reminder of his own misery and repressed homosexuality.  

THE POWER OF THE DOG is a slow burn that is likely to turn off the casual viewer. The narrative moves along like shadows cascading over the setting’s mountainous Montana backdrop. However, patience pays off in a surprising fashion, albeit with an abrupt ending that may be too understated to provide substantial closure. (If you find this to be the case, refer back to the italicized text at top.)   

Performance-wise, Cumberbatch commands the most attention. Phil Burbank has a beguiling presence in how he gets under Rose’s skin; his banjo strumming as she plays the piano is brilliantly executed. Unfortunately, everyone in Cumberbatch’s presence is pretty much hanging out in the shade, his shadow looming large. Real-life couple Dunst and Plemons don’t have much chemistry; their on-screen marriage comes across as a matter of convenience than true love. The real surprise is Kodi Smit-McPhee. He looks like the western equivalent of an emo kid on the outside. Taking him under his wing, Phil thinks he’s the more calculating of the two. But Peter is a doctor in training, and his clinical coldness keeps him as sharp as a scalpel.  

This film will hit differently for many. Thematic metaphors and subtext abound, and countless think-piece essays will be written. I disagree with describing Campion’s adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel as another revisionist western about cowboys. All movie westerns are revisions of the past. Just because Hollywood has primarily held on to the myth of the West and the hero cowboy doesn’t mean it’s the only story. Such a limited perspective for a broad enough film genre is absurd. Besides, Larry McMurtry (LONESOME DOVE) put it best when he wrote about the misimpressions people have about cowboys and how they are perceived. In a collection of essays released a year after Savage’s novel, McMurtry acknowledges, “I think it would be facile to assume… that most cowboys are repressed homosexuals. Most cowboys are repressed heterosexuals.”   

Grade: B+

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