The Power of the Dog Has a Queer Problem

Western films have long complicated the ideals of stoic masculinity. So what’s still so surprising about a queer cowboy?

A silhouette of two men in a barn

This article contains spoilers for The Power of the Dog.

“Poison is a woman’s weapon,” Sherlock Holmes says in the 1945 movie Pursuit to Algiers, articulating one of popular culture’s favorite seductive fictions. The majority of real-life murders by poisoning are, as most acts of violence, committed by men. Yet works of entertainment such as Arsenic and Old Lace, Phantom Thread, and Game of Thrones have continuously circled the same logic: When physical prowess and social status confer strength, women fight carefully, in secret, and by exploiting their roles as helpers to men.

Poisoning both is and isn’t a woman’s weapon in Jane Campion’s Western drama, The Power of the Dog. In the film’s twist ending, the medical student Peter (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) fatally infects the cow herder Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch). Peter’s lisp and slender build make other guys call him “Nancy” and “bitch,” and he uses anthrax on behalf of a woman, his mom (Rose, played by Kirsten Dunst), whom Phil has been mocking and manipulating. Yet Peter does so as an expression of chivalry: “What kind of man would I be,” he asks, “if I did not help my mother?”

Such feinting and parrying with gender expectations has helped The Power of the Dog win Best Picture Drama at the Golden Globes and become a frontrunner for Best Picture at the Oscars. The story of interpersonal tensions on a 1920s Montana ranch—ruled by Phil and his brother, George (Jesse Plemons)—has been hailed as a mind-bending study of toxic masculinity and American progress. Yet the film left me cold, and the acclaim it has sparked seems oddly credulous. Campion’s supposed provocations arise, in large part, from clichés about queer people.

The movie’s early chapters dole out expository dialogue against spare landscapes, gathering curiosity around one question: What is the deal with Phil, the chaps-clad menace of the ranch? His cruelty toward the vulnerable—Rose, Peter, horses—makes him the Platonic ideal of a jackass. He also shows grandiose self-loathing (he refuses to bathe so as to keep his “stink”), monkishness (a bachelor, he resents his brother’s marriage), aestheticism (he can shred on banjo), and incongruity (this bull castrator, we learn, has a Yale humanities education). Though the ultimate dude, he is somehow not like the other cowboys.

This is because he is gay. About halfway through the movie, the camera follows Phil into a secluded glen where he caresses the scarf of his late mentor, Bronco Henry. Soon after, Peter happens upon that glen and discovers a stash of Henry’s beefcake mags, which Phil kept. Many viewers will have clocked Phil’s orientation much earlier, but Campion presents it as a revelation that makes the pieces of the previous hour fit together.

Part of the reason the aha works is that the audience has seen this story before. What is, after all, so surprising about a queer cowboy? We live in a time after “Old Town Road,” after Brokeback Mountain, after Willie Nelson’s hit 2006 cover of “Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other,” written by Ned Sublette in 1981. Many of the most important Western films have, in one way or another, complicated the lonesome-and-noble male archetype. In fact, Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, The Power of the Dog, was based in part on the author’s own experiences as a queer person in the American West and helped usher in the coming out for the cowboy.

Campion travels back to the milieu Savage wrote about without recognizing how insights can, over decades, become their own tropes. Far from strong and silent, this movie’s queer cowboy is the ranting and raving manifestation of pat psychology. Viewers will infer that Phil’s awfulness derives from repression, and as they do they may be hit with a broader sense of cultural déjà vu. Perhaps they remember American Beauty’s Frank Fitts, the monstrous military man hiding same-sex lust. Surely they know the sissy villains of Bond movies, and no doubt they’ve seen the memes imagining Vladimir Putin kissing Donald Trump. To be sure, The Power of the Dog is not ridiculing Phil. The closet renders him as understandable and sad—or perhaps the better term is pitiful.

He has a potent foil in Peter, a paper-bouquet artisan who loves his mother a lot. Campion leaves Peter’s attractions mysterious, but within the world of the film he is, for all purposes, queer: someone scrutinized for the way he defies gendered scripts. As with Phil, the audience must draw upon its own knowledge of such scripts to deduce Peter’s internal workings. He cannot or at least does not want to pass as a regular guy in the way that Phil does, and instead he has built up his own kind of toughness: indifference at being called a “faggot,” dignity in his dainty hobbies.

As Phil draws Peter into an apprenticeship of sorts, the audience is lured less into a psychodrama than a guessing game about the kind of movie they’re watching. Is it a romance? Is it a tragedy? Is it, like so many prestigious gay works, a tragic romance? These two men may be hanging out because of desire, or Peter may be enjoying the protection of a former oppressor, or Phil may be setting up a vicious prank—we are given no way of knowing. What Campion does make clear is that, in the end, there will be blood. With every flash of unsubtle S&M imagery and shiver of Jonny Greenwood’s score, the film moves away from Call Me by Your Name or Brokeback Mountain and toward Cruising, the infamous 1980 movie about leather-bar murders.

The particulars of The Power of the Dog’s lethal ending—unguessable at first, obvious in retrospect, ultimately arbitrary—do have the zing of a Clue game’s culmination: It was Peter, with the toxic animal flesh, in the barn! As Peter reads the Bible verse that gives the film its name and smiles upon the woman whom he believes he has protected, Campion’s thematic interests—the meek inherit the Earth, the prey outwits the predator, the feminine inspires the masculine—crystallize. So do some larger, vague lessons about performative masculinity.

Extrapolate those lessons too much and you end up in patently homophobic territory—we should not assume that every abusive oaf pines for a Bronco Henry. But the problem with The Power of the Dog is not that it is offensive—it isn’t. The problem is that it is dull: a slow study of stock characters. Beneath the film’s aura of profound mystery is the smaller, specific recognition that society has often suppressed fellowship between queer people and forced them into kill-or-be-killed wariness. But Campion treats that reality as the object of gruesome, clinical dissection, only to find that every bit of gut and bone is exactly where it’s always been.

Related Podcast

Listen to Spencer Kornhaber discuss The Power of the Dog on an episode of The Atlantic’s culture podcast The Review:

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