screen gems

Get ready for the anti-‘Brokeback Mountain’

The Power of the Dog

Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.

The Intriguing: The Power of the Dog

Netflix and Oscar-winning writer/director Jane Campion make their bid for 2021 awards glory with this adaptation of Thomas Savage’s novel.

The story follows brothers Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons, respectively), a pair of wealthy cattle barons herding cows across the Montana wilderness. Along the drive, the pair meet Rose (Kristen Dunst), a widowed inn owner with a teen son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil has nothing but contempt for Rose and Peter, making fun of the boy’s lisp, artistic inclinations, and effete demeanor. George, however, finds himself smitten with Rose, and quickly marries her without telling Phil. It quickly becomes evident that even George is terrified of Phil’s bullying.

Rose and Peter move into the Burbank mansion, where she quickly begins to drink heavily to quell her Phil-related anxiety. Peter, meanwhile, ships off to boarding school to study medicine. When he returns for the summer, he finds his mother a drunken mess and immediately becomes the target of Phil & his ranch hands’ taunting. Then something strange happens: Phil begins to take an odd interest in Peter. Peter, meanwhile begins to spy on Phil and uncovers his obsession with his former mentor, Bronco Henry.

More than that we’ll not say here, as The Power of the Dog has more than a few shocking twists. We will reveal, however, that much like Brokeback Mountain before it, at its core The Power of the Dog presents a meditation on masculinity. Unlike Brokeback, however, which used masculine identity as a prism through which to view a same-sex romance, Dog sees what happens when masculine identity and same-sex attraction work against one another. For the characters in this movie, gay impulses violate masculinity rather than edify it. Thus, the need to feel masculine becomes both maddening and violent.

Call it the anti-Brokeback Mountain.

In the lead, Cumberbatch gives a white-knuckle, terrifying performance. Phil is a character that relishes the power of his masculinity, and who has no interest in women whatsoever. For Phil, women might as well not exist: he gains his satisfaction from hanging out with his strapping ranch hands, opining for Bronco Henry (one scene shows him packing Bronco’s handkerchief in his crotch), and harassing everyone around him. He even interprets George’s love for Rose as a kind of betrayal, of Geroge surrendering his maleness. For Phil, this masculine obsession is doubly poisonous: not only does he hate women, he hates all forms of affection. Tormenting others just affirms his manhood.

Does this besetting with Bronco Henry and male identity mean Phil is gay? The movie seems to imply as much. Indeed, Phil’s relationship with Peter begins to take on a certain slave/master quality. Watching, we couldn’t help but think of the 2019 Chilean film The Prince, another rumination on masculine identity and sexuality. As with that movie, sex and power roles here become inexorably linked thanks to the need to seem “manly.” The more Peter seems to take Phil’s torment in stride, the more Phil seems attracted to him. Does this make director Campion’s interpretation of Phil a homophobic one? Not at all: the fact is, some gay men have no interest in women, even as friends or co-workers. That obliviousness often becomes a sexist attitude in and of itself.

As the director of Portrait of a Lady and The Piano, Jane Campion has built a career fascinated by male characters that don’t know how to communicate well, especially when it comes to showing affection. The Power of the Dog, however, takes that awkwardness to a new level, and a dark one at that. As before, Campion proves herself a wonderful director of actors, with Cumberbatch and Dunst both doing some of their best work ever. Loaded with sweeping cinematography of the Montana countryside, The Power of the Dog is a gorgeous film to look at, one with a tense story and vibrant characters.

The Power of the Dog will, no doubt, be a major awards contender this year, and one of the most discussed. What Phil’s character says about masculine identity and sex is as intriguing as it is disturbing.

Streams on Netflix.

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