- YEAR: 2021
- DIRECTOR: Jane Campion
- KEY ACTORS: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons
- CERTIFICATE: 12A
- IMDB SCORE: 6.9
- ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 94%
SEX SCORE: 1/5
❌ I’m sad about the low score for this one as it’s a better film that my score will reflect, but I didn’t want to fuck the cast…
❌ …and it didn’t inspire fantasies. It’s an emotionally manipulative and repressed film, and I didn’t really like any of them.
❌ And it also fails the Bechdel Test. There are at least two named women, Rose and Mrs Lewis, but I can’t recall them talking, and the other women don’t have names.
❌ I also can’t give it a mark for sex positivity. The relationships are strained and abusive, and sexuality is repressed and harmful.
✔️ But I think it is rewatchable. I didn’t initially, but I can’t stop thinking about it and now really want to see it again…
As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
STREAMING: Netflix. For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com
[Content warning: racism, misogynoir, emotional abuse, alcoholism, repressed sexuality, murder.]
Oh my, what a few weeks it has been since I first decided to write about The Power of the Dog!
I had chosen to write about it because it was described as an erotic movie about cowboys, which sounded right up my alley! But it also felt like an important movie and one that needed to be talked about now – not only was it thought to be the likely winner of the Best Picture Oscar at last week’s Academy Awards, it also had a female director, Jane Campion, and I don’t write enough about films with female directors, and a female cinematographer, Ari Wegner, who I was appalled to discover was the first woman ever to be nominated for Best Cinematographer. This is a film made by successful women! Plus, with its staggering 12 nominations, including Best Director, Best Actors in Leading and Supporting Roles, Best Screenplay and Best Original Score, it really is an important, well-made and well regarded movie!
But in the end, only Jane Campion was successful at this year’s Oscar Ceremony. While she did make history as the first female director to win Best Director award twice and is the second female win in consecutive years (the revolution is now!), The Power of the Dog largely underachieved and, when thinking about why this happened, I have become intrigued by the process of winning Oscars and receiving recognition from the Hollywood establishment. I am beginning to fear that the results of the 94th Academy Awards are more influenced by old prejudices than it would like to admit…
(As a quick aside, I’m not going to write about the Chris Rock/Will Smith incident here, except to say that it made me really sad. What a way to spectacularly change the direction and focus of your career in a moment that should have been your triumph.)
Even though the discourse around the power of Harvey Weinstein during #MeToo had ensured that I was aware of Oscar campaigns and how votes could be swung with fancy parties or good speeches, I have only really started paying attention to the Oscar race this year – thank you, Big Picture podcast – and understand better how a film’s chances of success wax and wane depending on factors that having nothing to do with the film itself. The Power of the Dog may have initially been accepted as a shoe-in for Best Picture but it was released on 19th November 2021, which is a looooong time ago and opinions change.
Because The Power of the Dog didn’t win Best Picture. That honour went to CODA, a very sweet and well-made movie about a child of deaf adults that I loved, but never felt like a Best Picture winner. But what does that mean? Is the Best Picture the best made movie of the year? The most interesting? The one that makes you feel the most? Or think the most? Should it be the one that covers an ‘issue’ or controversy? It’s clearly not the most popular movie but maybe the winner should be the one that is most talked about or that offers the newest perspective?
I fear that the results have exposed residual old prejudices because I have come to believe that CODA might simply have been the ‘safer’ choice. Juan Barquin, writing about The Power of the Dog for Them, described how ‘queer films must thread a very specific needle to appeal to both audiences and awards voters‘ and it is a ‘rare queer film that is considered both “Oscar bait” and “actually great cinema.”’ And because both the deaf and queer communities remain under-represented on screen and in awards, maybe the old elite of the Academy who vote for these awards found it easier to support a good movie about deaf people than a good movie about gay cowboys. Maybe the Academy’s attempts to diversity and increase its membership haven’t changed anything don’t forget that Paul Haggis’s Crash (the race one, not the sexy David Cronenberg one) beat another gay cowboy movie, Brokeback Mountain, to Best Picture in 2006, which is still considered one of the biggest Oscar upsets and has been blamed on homophobia within the voters.
I also fear that Campion screwed up her chances of success with a ‘thoughtless comment’ when accepting another award earlier in the season.
Goddamnit Jane Campion, why did you have to say something so stupid and undermine your own film?? She had been doing so well, calling out Sam Elliot just a week earlier when he complained about ‘all these allusions to homosexuality throughout the fucking movie’ by calling him a B-I-T-C-H, which managed to both remind everyone that The Power of the Dog has queer themes AND made her look like a bad-ass feminist.
Except that she then ruined it by, well, being a white feminist with no idea about intersectionality. While accepting her Best Director trophy at the Critics Choice Award, Campion decided to use her speech to compare herself to Venus and Serena Williams, who were at the awards because of their producer credit in King Richard. ‘Serena and Venus, you are such marvels! However you do not play against the guys like I do.’ she says with a knowing laugh as if to explain why her battle with misogyny is harder than theirs. As if her oppression is more extreme. Honestly, this is why no one likes white feminists!
(Do you think the Williams’s had any idea what was coming when they joined the Oscar campaign? Between this and Smith’s allusions to their father during his sort-of-apology acceptance speech, it has been A Ride.)
Intersectional feminism acknowledges and understands that, while the Patriarchy is hard for everyone, it is more of a mess and harder at every step you move away from the patriarchal ideal of being a cis, white, straight, middle-class man. Being a woman within the patriarchy is hard but being a woman of colour is markedly and measurably worse than being a white woman because this shit is additive, and this crossover has become known as misogynoir, a term coined by Moya Bailey in 2010.
This part of Campion’s speech, made while accepting an award for her own achievements, was completely unnecessary and opened her up to accusations of racism, but it also gave her the air of a woman who doesn’t support other women as she’d chosen to push down two of the most successful women in the room, Venus and Serena Williams, to enhance the impression of her own success. As Natasha Mulenga wrote for Teen Vogue, ‘how can we have a come together moment if white women will throw Black women under the bus at any given opportunity? In this case, in the name of getting a laugh and a round of applause.’
Campion has since apologised, saying that ‘the last thing [she] would ever want to do is minimise remarkable women,’ but the damage had been done. Suddenly Campion was no longer that bad-ass feminst that we should elevate and support. Yes, she had made a fantastic film and deserved recognition in her Best Director award, but Best Picture had slipped out of reach, particularly when compared to the flawless and feel-good campaign by CODA. Sigh.
Because I do think The Power of the Dog should have won. I must admit that I wasn’t sure I liked it when I first saw it but that has really changed in the days since. When the film finished, I was immediately reminded of a line from The Big Picture about how they ‘admired but didn’t love’ the movie, and that’s sort of where I was. But I’ve not been able to stop thinking about it. Without watching it again, The Power of the Dog is growing on me and I am dwelling on the plot and themes in ways that few movies inspire in me. I’ve wanted to know more; I’ve sought out others’ opinions and read more than I needed for this review. I am fascinated by this movie, and I don’t understand why this beautiful, incredibly well-acted and truly, truly fascinating movie didn’t deserve a Best Picture Oscar.
The Power of the Dog tells the story of two brothers, Phil (Cumberbatch) and George (Plemons) who work on a cow ranch in Montana. Early in the film, George meets and marries hotel owner Rose (Dunst), which angers Phil so much that he begins to emotionally manipulate and torture Rose and her son, Peter (Smit-McPhee), causing her to spiral into alcoholism. As Phil gets closer to Peter, a homoerotic tension builds between them but, ultimately, Peter gets his revenge by taking advantage of Phil’s desire to make Peter a new rope, offering him anthrax exposed cowhide, and murdering him in a twist that seems like it might have been a tragic accident until the last scene, and then the whole movie suddenly looks entirely different.
The Power of the Dog is a gay cowboy story but it is much more a story of masculinity. Of what it means to be a man and what it does to a person to try and be someone that they are not.
I was fascinated by Guy Lodge’s opinion on The Power of the Dog, and particularly Phil and Cumberbatch’s performance. He describes it as ‘a film of reveals: some gradual and ruthlessly calculated, others abrupt and careless and hastily re-concealed…When they slip, they show us the secret lives and minds of men who want to seem more straight and simple than they are.‘ Lodge talks about how he initially thought Cumberbatch wasn’t very good in the role and was giving ‘the appearance of acting more than usual.’ Everything about him as a tough American cowboy felt fake and unnatural, until ‘the penny dropped. The tensely macho affectations aren’t so much Cumberbatch’s as Phil’s.’ Phil thinks that men need to be tough and aggressive and angry and powerful, and so he has become a caricature. Cruel, mocking, and dirty but undoubtably a man.
In comparison to George who tries to become more refined by wearing smart clothes and encouraging his wife to play piano, Phil is actively trying to distance himself from anything that might dent the idea that he’s a real tough guy. He has studied classics but doesn’t want to talk about anything but his ranch; he is clearly incredibly talented at music and playing the banjo but we only really see him play when he is torturing Rose – a scene correctly described as ‘most menacing five-string banjo picking since Deliverance.’ He is eloquent and clever and makes smart business decisions, but he is also filthy and arrogant and vicious because that’s how he has been taught that men should be.
Until he meets Peter. Peter is an entirely different type of man; effeminate, openly intelligent, gentle, and with no desire to be anything else. Of course, Phil has to taunt and mock Peter – he ‘recognises a strange kind of threat in Peter’s wispy demeanour, fearing that a kid who cares so little for performative masculinity will see right through his own.’ And yet he still cannot keep away, cannot help but want to be closer to someone who might share his secret and deeply hidden desires.
And this is where The Power of the Dog becomes so so powerful. Monica Castillo wrote that Campion’s movies ‘focus on shifting power dynamics between characters: who has power, who loses it, and how they gain it back’ and this flow of power within The Power of the Dog is so subtle that I almost missed it.
Who does have the power? It looks like Phil. He’s instigating the action, he’s the aggressive force behind everything that happens. Even when he doesn’t reveal his intentions, we are so brainwashed by movie tropes and traditions that we feel like we know what is going to happen. Mid-way through the movie, my husband turned to me and said that he was waiting for Phil to take Peter into the hills and murder him – or fuck him, I quipped in response – but we were missing the point. Or more, we didn’t know enough yet to understand that we were being as misled as Phil; that he really wasn’t the one with the power.
Smit-McPhee’s performance is almost as jaw-dropping as Cumberbatch’s because his intentions are both obscure and impossibly visible at the same time as looks that appeared shy or unsure became calculated and contrived with hindsight. Jazza John on the Queer Movie Podcast’s review echoed my thoughts on first watching because I too really wanted to protect Peter. Even as he dissected pet rabbits, I worried for him and was too afraid of what Phil might do to even think about what Peter might be planning. This film really fucked with my expectations!
And the dynamic between Peter and Phil offers a new angle on age-old queer representations on screen. The queerness of The Power of the Dog is both intrinsic and incidental, and is important beyond the impact on gender expression. Described by some as having a ‘queer problem‘ as it contained ‘a slow study of stock characters‘ while others worried that this ‘explicitly queer [movie] still wasn’t “explicit” enough for some viewers,’ it is based on a 1967 novel by Thomas Savage. It is a queer movie written by a gay man that influenced future queer literature and cinema, including Annie Proulx who wrote Brokeback Mountain and also wrote an afterword for a reprint of The Power of the Dog where she described it as a ‘literary artwork’ that influenced her own writing. And yet, it doesn’t fulfil old lazy tropes of queer cinema and, as Barquin noted, their dynamic feels ‘invigorating’ because it ‘avoids the easy theory that the homophobe is just gay himself. Instead, The Power of the Dog casually observes that anyone can be both a monster and a victim.’
The Power of the Dog is also partially a true story. Described as semi-autobiographical, Campion has talked in several interviews about how she thinks Peter’s character was based on Savage himself. She has said that Savage ‘came to the ranch in a similar manner as Peter—his mother married a brother, at that time, Ed Brenner, who is actually the inspiration for Phil Burbank,‘ and described someone that Savage’s living family believed was the inspiration for Bronco Henry. Morbidly, Savage also has an uncle who died from anthrax poisoning. Which, I have to say, makes the creepy tone feel even creepier…
Of course, this emotional response and creeping dread was intentional, built from the jarring Jonny Greenwood score and the choices Ari Wegner, the cinematographer, made with Campion over the year that they planned this movie. Together, they made sure we felt this intention without needing words to explain it. In her interview on the Girls on Film podcast, Ari Wegner spoke a lot about Rose and her role in George and Phil’s relationship, describing it as ‘marriage…that’s falling apart’ and Rose’s arrival is the final nail in the coffin. George and Phil have an oddly child-like existence, sleeping in narrow twin beds in the same room, and I wonder if that’s why Phil is so hurt and responds so aggressively to Rose. Wegner explained that they shot Phil and Rose together like it was a horror film, making sure the audience could always ‘sense where Phil is. Or whether Rose is feeling safe or unsafe compared to where he is.’ And it is really effective! The New York Times review described it as becoming ‘something of a female Gothic, one of those eerie stories about women in suffocating domestic spaces haunted by ghosts (literal and otherwise),’ and I can understand why Rose falls apart as she spends more time on the ranch.
Rose is another hugely fascinating character who also tells us a lot about the dangers of strict gender expectations, and Dunst gave another brilliant performance in the role. Damn, this movie is full of extraordinary performances! She undermines the Patriarchy because she was fine before the men came along and it ruined by following the patriarchal rules that claim to protect her. When we first meet her, she is running a hotel and restaurant that is frequented by rough cowboys and seems able to hold her own. She’s efficient, effective, and she’s successful. Yes, Phil’s cruelty towards Peter gets under her skin, but it doesn’t impact her professionalism. It is only when she marries George and moves to the ranch, losing her independence and purpose, that she becomes exposed. Again, I loved hearing Wegner’s perspective on Rose and how they changed the colour palette and costuming to demonstrate her descent from capable business owner in trousers and plain colours to an alcoholic wife, wearing pink lacy gowns, which can only highlight her vulnerability.
God, there is so much that I can say about The Power of the Dog (and I perhaps shouldn’t have spent so many words ranting about Oscar voting tendencies!) I loved the hints at BDSM within the movie – ‘saddles and chaps and ropes and whips, oh my’ – and particularly surrounding Phil’s mentor, Broncho Henry. Lodge describes the ‘fetishistic reverence with which he treats his one keepsake of Henry, a riding saddle that he displays in the barn, regularly oiling and polishing it with an out-of-character tenderness that borders on the erotic.’ I loved the reminder that Western movies are never really about cowboys and are instead almost always about the division and conflict between two warring factions, whether right and wrong, gay or straight, or simply ‘wilderness and civilization, a split that films have long represented as a series of endless white-and-black hat struggles.’ I loved that it was a movie with a genuine twist that ‘creeps up behind you like a thief‘ and changes the entire film.
And I loved that it grew on me. I want to revisit it again and again to see the nuance and subtlety that I had missed first time. What else do you want from a movie?
NEXT TIME…the next movie star in the series – JULIA ROBERTS