Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog is a film of reveals: some gradual and ruthlessly calculated, others abrupt and careless and hastily re-concealed. Bodies and desires are unwittingly exposed to others. Motivations are guarded until it’s too late to change them. When they slip, they show us the secret lives and minds of men who want to seem more straight and simple than they are.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance is the film is a reveal in itself. It’s aggressive and dissonant and off-kilter in ways the refined British actor rarely permits himself to be on screen, and I spent a good portion of the film’s running time figuring out if I liked it or not. Whenever he plays American, Cumberbatch gives the appearance of acting more than usual, and such is the case here: cast very much against type as crude, caustic Montana rancher Phil Burbank, his growling drawl and wide-gaited cowboy swagger feel like put-ons, almost distractingly unnatural to him — even as his presence fixes your gaze with eerie insistence.
At a certain point, the penny dropped. The tensely macho affectations aren’t so much Cumberbatch’s as Phil’s: the actor is channeling the character’s own uneasy but compelling performance of alpha masculinity, straining to keep a different sense of self under his shapeless leather cattleman hat. And it was with this realisation that the not-so-secret agenda of Campion’s terse, hard-bitten and surprisingly, substantially queer film began to bloom, like a cactus flower in a very hostile desert.
Or a paper flower on an otherwise dingy barroom table setting — out-of-place decorations fashioned by out-of-place teenager Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a quiet, anxious boy who looks like he was once scared entirely out of his skin and never quite got it to fit again. The ornate fake blossoms are brusquely destroyed by Phil, set on fire to light his cigarette, and for much of The Power of the Dog, it looks like Peter will likewise fall prey to the older man’s wilfully destructive impulses. There, too, the film defies our expectations, as Phil and Peter enter a fierce psychological standoff that highlights their very different senses of duty toward masculine identity — and ultimately reveals what they have in common.
Phil has always had a beta counterpart to torment: usually, his mild-mannered brother George (Jesse Plemons) has taken the brunt of that need. For 40 years, the men have shared a bedroom in the dark, unloved wooden house at the centre of the family ranch, maintaining a physical closeness in spite of personalities roaming ever farther apart. Stuffily suited George is the ranch’s gentle pragmatist; Phil, never not seen in oily, sweat-stained workwear, is its brawny labourer, despite a superior, well-read intelligence that he works hard to override — as if his intellect might give the lie to his brutishness.
It’s an unhappy arrangement that has nonetheless worked well enough for years. Phil is more rattled than he cares to admit when George rather suddenly marries fragile widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst), moving her into the house and himself out of the brothers’ bedroom. Perhaps he’s merely taking that frustration out on Rose’s son Peter when he starts relentless bullying the boy, taunting him for his spindly physique, his effeminate hobbies and his mother’s weaknesses. But perhaps 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 so The Power of the Dog proceeds as a morbid, cold-souled negative of Brokeback Mountain: a film where two lonesome cowboys recognised a mutual queerness in each other, letting it pull them close until the world pulled them apart. Here, the world needn’t intervene: the men can weaponise that shared secret against each other all by themselves. Though Campion’s adaptation of Thomas Savage’s novel makes blunt nods to gay desire in some respects — even revealing a character’s hidden stash of muscle magazines, what passed in the 1920s for gay porn — its most charged queer relationship is an unseen one.
Taciturn Phil speaks little of anything personal, but frequently shares memories of a late cowboy, Bronco Henry, his perma-scowl lifting by a full inch whenever the name crosses his lips and mind. Henry, we gather, showed young Phil the literal ropes as a rancher, and more besides. But nothing Phil says of the man is as revealing as 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.
Poor George and ailing Rose can only dream of this tactile chemistry between Phil and his idol’s leather seat. Campion, a great sensualist film-maker, is rarely given due credit for her sense of humour, but there’s sly, leering wit in the way she draws on rustic BDSM iconography — saddles and chaps and ropes and whips, oh my — to articulate the queer longings her characters would rather not. Elsewhere, she revels in male-for-male vanity and peacocking: in one marvellous tableau, she gazes across Phil’s retinue of young ranch hands on a work break, in repose in various states of undress, one even sprawled like a beefcake model astride his horse. It’s a luxuriant display of male beauty for the benefit of no one but each other. Claire Denis’ Beau Travail comes to mind in its body-beautiful symbology of masculine power and servility — though so, perhaps accidentally but not inappropriately, does the rodeo-chic queerness of Madonna’s Don’t Tell Me video.
Yet the most hard-to-read queerness in the film lies in the character most easily targeted and bullied for not being like the other boys. Peter’s desires are opaque throughout; when he begins mirroring Phil’s behaviour later in the film, to the consternation of his protective mother, it’s not clear whether he’s motivated by empathy and identification or canny, vengeful trap-laying. Phil softens to the lad, making peace, as you do, by weaving him a snazzy, handmade cowboy’s lasso. It’s a gesture of kinship: they’re family, of course, but perhaps he means another kind of community. Masculine bonding is a fixture of the American western, of course, though Campion’s thrilling, perverse film subverts that tradition, bringing the long-seated subtext of the genre perilously close to the surface — only to get violently evasive just as her cowboys are about to come clean, or come out, to each other.