The Western Mythmaking of Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog

“She’s trying to understand something about American masculinity and what a gossamer facade it is.”

Still of Paul and George on horseback in "The Power of the Dog"
Kirsty Griffin / Netflix; Charlie Le Maignan / The Atlantic

In the past 30 years, two Westerns have won Best Picture at the Academy Awards and both redefined that most American of genres. When Clint Eastwood’s brutally revisionist Unforgiven won in 1993, it marked a turning point for films that had long idealized frontier violence. The Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men then won in 2008, defining modern Westerns beyond the typical 19th-century setting.

And now, in 2022, Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog is the most Oscar-nominated film of the year and may yet mark the third Best Picture–winning Western in as many decades. But front-runner status invariably means criticism. This week, the actor Sam Elliott went off on the film, denouncing its gay story line and New Zealand photography as untrue to the Western.

Filming in the American West is no prerequisite for great Westerns of course (the term spaghetti Western exists for a reason), but more importantly, the genre’s power was never in its familiar tropes. Westerns aren’t about gunfights or stagecoaches. They’re about how an extreme landscape boils human storytelling down to the essentials: man versus nature, man versus man, man versus society. The Western is Greek tragedy for America’s rugged individualism—and also for its machismo.

The genre has endured through its flexibility to contain action, drama, and comedy, but it also relied on a fairly fixed relationship to masculinity, one defined by stoic icons such as Gary Cooper and John Wayne. That inflexibility is where Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog draws its exquisite tension. Despite its sweeping photography, the film is ultimately a claustrophobic psychodrama orbiting Benedict Cumberbatch’s Phil Burbank—a bullying rancher whose performative masculinity is a not-so-subtle cover for his closeted sexuality.

Set in 1925, well into the twilight of the Wild West, The Power of the Dog is about the mythmaking of the American frontier in more ways than one. Cumberbatch’s character never bathes, costuming himself as a hypermasculine cowboy in a world where that lifestyle is fast fading into myth.

But while Campion’s film follows past Westerns by stretching the boundaries of the genre into sexual psychodrama, does it fall into a different kind of storytelling trope? Namely, does The Power of the Dogas Spencer Kornhaber has written—have a queer problem?

Listen to Spencer Kornhaber, David Sims, and Shirley Li debate the film on The Atlantic’s culture podcast, The Review:

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The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. It contains spoilers for The Power of the Dog.

Shirley Li: Today we are talking about The Power of the Dog, the Jane Campion–adapted–and–directed drama set in the American West in the 1920s. This is Campion’s first film in more than a decade. Her last film was the period drama Bright Star, and in the time since, she’s been working on the TV series Top of the Lake. The Power of the Dog came out on Netflix in November and has since become this year’s Oscar front-runner, sweeping many of the precursory awards and racking up the most Oscar nominations of any film this year. It’s also a movie that requires a lot of unpacking.

This film is ostensibly a Western. It traffics in a lot of classic Western imagery, yet beneath that aesthetic resides this claustrophobic psychodrama. And as Spencer has written, the story itself perhaps has a queer problem. So today, I’m hoping you can dive into this question: Is The Power of the Dog an incisive study of masculinity, or is it a collection of queer clichés? But before we get too far into that, let’s do some setup. David, can you give us a refresher on what this film is about?

David Sims: Yes, The Power of the Dog is a Western set at a ranching operation in 1925 Montana, but it’s mostly about these four characters and the interplay between them. We’ve got Jesse Plemons and Benedict Cumberbatch playing the brothers George and Phil Burbank. George is nice, and Phil is mean. And I would say that’s sort of their vibe, although there’s a lot more going on. Plemons’s George is a fairly pleasant, civilized fella who runs this ranch and seems to desire a settled life. And Phil is a dirty old meanie who bites everyone’s head off and really values what an impressive man of the wild he is. He’s castrating bulls by hand, and he is, you know, making his own rope and so on.

And they meet a widowed innkeeper named Rose, played by Kirsten Dunst, and her son, Peter, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee. George marries Rose after a brief, melancholy little courtship, and they all move in together in the brothers’ gothic ranch house, this giant mausoleum-like building in the middle of nowhere in Montana. This film was actually shot in New Zealand, but it’s got these big, epic landscapes. And Phil shows his unhappiness at his new family by menacing them and bullying them, especially Rose. He has a more complicated dynamic with Peter, who is sort of effeminate, but the initial judging-a-book-by-its-cover reads you might have on these characters is not the whole story as things unfold.

Li: The film is about this unhappy family and its four characters, but really, there’s one prominent character. Phil is the central figure, and everyone else orbits around his nastiness and his secrets.

Spencer Kornhaber: I want a movie about George going to town in his funny porkpie hats, running some lovely errands and having a nice frontier business life.

Sims: (Laughs.) Although there’s a reason George is doing that, I’d argue. It’s not just to keep his character out of the action. George is trying to ignore all of the obvious toxic things going on under his roof, in my opinion.

Li: We should also mention the fifth character in this ensemble who we never see but is named Bronco Henry, who has since become a meme.

Kornhaber: (Laughs.)

Sims: Hell yeah. (Laughs.) Yes, there is an unseen mentor to the two brothers named Bronco Henry, whom Phil talks about with absolute reverence.

Kornhaber: And I guess that’s the name in the book, Bronco Henry?

Li: It is. This is based on a book by Thomas Savage, written in 1967. And since you’ve mentioned Jane Campion, I do want to bring up a quote from her. The Power of the Dog is her first Oscar nomination in almost 30 years, after her last one for 1993’s The Piano. And she said:

“I’m quite used to not getting them, so I’m used to both sides of it. I mean, I’ve made quite a few films since The Piano, and they didn’t get that kind of recognition, even though I felt like I was trying just as hard. It’s really mysterious what people connect to and what they don’t, and I’m certainly not the knower of that, you know?”

So I wanted to know from both of you, when you were watching The Power of the Dog, what did you connect to and what didn’t you?

Kornhaber: I did not connect to too much in this movie. I don’t hate this movie. I think it’s a worthy movie—and it’s a fascinating movie to talk about—but I mostly connected to a curiosity of what kind of movie this is. All these pieces are in position and then it idles for a while, so you’re left speculating, Where is this you’re going? And you do get an answer in the last two minutes. And the answer is: sneaky queer revenge murder, not sneaky queer love story.

The Western is one of the great archetypal movie genres in film history. It feels comfortable and familiar. And so you’re left waiting for what exactly the twist will be. You get small twists along the way, but the grand flourish about what she is trying to accomplish with this story only comes at the very end. And rewatching it again recently somewhat improved the viewing experience, but I don’t quite get the hype.

Sims: I went into this film very excited that one of my all-time-favorite filmmakers had finally made a movie again. I like Top of the Lake, but she hadn’t made a movie since Bright Star. And I think I had the reaction that a lot of people had, which was what you’re describing, Spencer: I was on tenterhooks the whole damn time being like, Where is this going?

Obviously, I was very transfixed by the characters and swept up in the visuals. But I kind of didn’t understand how I was supposed to feel about everyone, and Phil in particular—and about the dynamic building between Phil and Peter. And then the last five minutes of the movie are this crazy, crushing plot blow. And you walk out of the theater unpacking it all.

Li: Part of the magic of this film is that when you rewatch it, it reveals itself to be trickier and thornier and nastier. And I walked away from my second viewing even higher than I had been after the first viewing. In both viewings, though, I did feel like it was telling a profound story. And it sounds to me like, Spencer, you saw these characters as, well, less profound.

Kornhaber: There’s a way that we could talk about this that would make it sound like I am offended by the movie. But it’s not so much that. Early on, when Phil starts bullying Peter in that first scene—he kind of cocks his wrist and he looks at Peter with a sort of malevolence but also interest—I groaned. Please don’t let this be a movie about a gay cowboy bullying an effeminate queer kid in the West.

To me, there is nothing particularly shocking or novel about the mean old cowboy who lives alone, ostracizing himself from society. “Maybe he has a secret, and maybe it’s that he’s gay.” Everything that goes along with that, the whole notion that various manly archetypes we have in our society are often cover for people who are vulnerable in one way or another, or are trying to hide some portion of themselves, or are gay—to me, that feels super played out.

It’s not that revelatory. And so for the first hour of the movie, it’s relying on your curiosity about what the deal is with Phil. And for me, I was like, Is that where this is going? Come on. This is not where it’s really going. Come on. And then he goes to this beautiful glen and he walks by the naked men bathing in the river. And it’s revealed that he has Bronco Henry’s neckerchief and he has this sort of masturbatory ritual. And then we find out that he has skin mags hidden away in case we needed further confirmation.

Li: I see where you’re coming from, Spencer. When Thomas Savage wrote this book in 1967, these ideas of repression and queerness probably felt revolutionary. And these days, it does feel like translating that to film could easily seem reductive. Making the twist be that this character is gay makes him feel like a stock character. But my take from this film is that the dog in the title is not queerness; it’s machismo. It’s masculinity. Yes, he’s repressed. Yes, he’s queer. And he’s surrounded by all of these notions of masculinity. I found there to be more to this than just saying, “Phil Burbank is gay, and therefore he’s what he is.”

Kornhaber: Absolutely. There’s a lot that can be strung out of the tropes this movie’s playing with, and perhaps Campion is saying, “Yeah, maybe this is a trope, but I’m going to take this character as a person worthy of portraying, as someone you can empathize with, and who can be seen anew.” But by the end of the movie, I didn’t feel like it had fully gotten to some place of showing us something that we haven’t really seen before, other than a pretty straightforward twist. You spend the second half wondering if Phil’s change toward Peter will turn into a love affair, or maybe Phil’s going to kill the kid for finding out about him. They’re scripts that we’ve seen play out and stories about the same subject matter as before. And then the kid kills him as a kind of preemptive strike because this guy has been horrible to his mom and is only going to make her life worse.

Sims: Which is an accurate read? Yeah, you’re right.

Kornhaber: That’s cool. But also then you’re just like, okay, so it’s like a David-and-Goliath story.

Li: But in my mind, it’s actually not so much about killing the dog. It’s about Peter transforming into a dog himself, right? He has killed, technically, a family member and someone whom he has kind of seduced. Obviously, there’s something toxic about poisoning a man to death, but he has also adopted a different form of masculinity and machismo. “You can’t kill the dog” is what they walked away with.

Sims: What is so offensive to Phil about Peter, as soon as he enters with the napkin draped over his arm and with the paper flowers, is not that he’s flamboyant but that he is clearly unashamed. And so Phil unleashes on him. And to me, it’s not so much that he’s gay—although that’s obviously something that’s boiling away inside of him—but it’s also this whole American concept of intelligence and machismo not being able to interact with each other. We learn Phil went to Yale and was this prodigy. Everyone talks about how smart he is. “Phi Beta Kappa in classics!”

And Phil’s almost disgusted by it but lets little glimmers through when he’s trying to wound someone. And that’s why Cumberbatch, who is a sort of upper-class British actor, is such good casting, because he feels like someone who is a little bit playing a cowboy. You believe the performance, that this is a guy you wouldn’t want to tangle with, but you also feel like he’s putting something on here.

Kornhaber: Right. It’s drag.

Sims: Exactly. And the meanness leans in a little too much. And that’s why the dynamic with Peter is more interesting than the usual bullying, because Peter is getting under Phil’s skin in this unexpected way by not giving a shit.

Kornhaber: But that is what bullying is! That’s almost the canonical reason to bully someone. You recognize something in them that you don’t like in yourself, right? To me, that’s just the starting place for understanding this story. The movie shows layers upon layers of the things that society forces people to hide, as well as the way that people come together. After Peter learns his secret, Phil tests him for a while, maybe as a keep-your-enemies-closer instinct, but perhaps because he could find a real connection that he is so desperate for.

And that’s about the cowboy, about the lone man in America … How do people who are not allowed to have connections finally, maybe, allow themselves to connect to others? And then it turns into this deadly trap because there’s this other layer on top of it, where Peter is doing a chivalrous thing. He’s being the trigger man, protecting his mom. And so I do think this movie is something of a beautiful jewel box, or a Rube Goldberg machine of the different ways that masculinity is keeping people on these tracks and denying them true love or connection.

You end up feeling bad for Phil. And this is a Campion thing, right? Not judging anyone. Becoming enamored and empathetic toward people who are freaky and perverted and are so ruled by some indescribable desire that they offend society around them. I’ve only seen The Piano and Bright Star, but she seems to be a champion of the freaks.

Li: Yeah, this is very much in her sweet spot.

Sims: She is maybe the greatest filmmaker of all time at depicting human interaction, in my opinion. The interactions she depicts—their subtlety, their quiet little bits of manners, the way emotion can switch between characters in a conversation—they’re so powerful.

Her first film is called Sweetie, which she made in New Zealand, and it’s very similar to The Power of the Dog in a lot of ways. It is about having a person in your house who you just cannot deal with.

Li: (Laughs.)

Sims: And she keeps going back to those kinds of personal dynamics. Except with The Power of the Dog, she’s trying to understand something about American masculinity and what a gossamer facade it is, these silly, academic, European colonizers just sort of marching into town being like, “Well, I could pull the balls off a bull better than any of you, so I must be the toughest!” I’m sure that’s why she connected to this book about a sensitive-seeming kid who wanders into the situation. And you worry about the kid, but instead, he’s playing a chess game with Phil that Phil doesn’t even know he’s in.

I also just want to point out—and this is something I didn’t know until recently—this book by Thomas Savage is not a well-known book. It was more discussed in the 1960s when it came out. But Thomas Savage, which I didn’t know recently, when he was a young boy moved to a ranch with his mother, and the brother of the man that his mother married was this great chess player who went to Yale, who was also a really hardened cowboy and a mean, terrible bully. So if that sounds familiar, it’s because you just watched The Power of the Dog, and clearly he poured his coming-of-age into this book that was a minor piece of sort of modern Western writing when it came out.

It’s also an acknowledged influence on Brokeback Mountain, Annie Proulx’s book. She said it was a big influence on her. But obviously, then you have this sort of funny thing where Brokeback Mountain at this point is old hat.

Li: I am really curious about what you think when you compare the legacy or, you know, potential legacy of this film versus the one that Brokeback Mountain had, just in terms of films about queerness and cowboy imagery. When I think about Brokeback Mountain, I think about its take on American identity more than masculinity, and I think I walk away feeling like it’s more tragic than The Power of the Dog, probably because the score is so lush and sweeping, and it’s about a love story. But I wonder what your take is there.

Sims: They’re very different movies. They really have a setting in common, obviously.

Kornhaber: But there was that Guardian piece that called The Power of the Dog the cold-souled Brokeback Mountain. And that seems right. It’s the inverse of it. Brokeback Mountain is important because it set that template, or at least brought that template to public acclaim and visibility. It made people feel ravished by a gay romance, swept up in the desire of it and then in the tragedy of how repression can shape a relationship. It’s an emotional movie in a big-hearted way.

And The Power of the Dog is not an emotional movie. It’s a very mental movie. It’s pointing out the other side of how a story like that can go. And that’s fine. That’s neat. But I did not go to the The Power of the Dog knowing it was a queer movie. And I don’t feel like people are talking about it that way. I’ve even seen some people say it has “queer subtext.“ Like, what?

Sims: No, that’s the text of the movie. (Laughs.)

Kornhaber: And it’s interesting that, whether it’s how the film has been marketed or that we don’t find out about Phil until halfway through the movie, it’s just not discussed much in those terms. And I wonder if that will change as Oscar season wears on.