For generations, cowboys have symbolized a distinct strand of American masculinity. Rugged, proud, aloof, not an ounce of feminine weakness: Whether it’s John Wayne or Clint Eastwood in the saddle, you know the kind of man he is. Naturally, such an iconic cultural totem has inspired filmmakers to subvert the tropes, and movies such as Blazing Saddles, Unforgiven and Brokeback Mountain have interrogated and upended the strictures that define the myth of the ultra-macho cowboy. As a result, most modern viewers probably recognize that the guy in the 10-gallon hat is actually more complex than he used to be portrayed — not that it’s not always welcome to see new takes that further erode such crippling, antiquated visions of manhood.
Opening in theaters today before landing on Netflix on December 1st, The Power of the Dog is the first movie from Oscar-winning filmmaker Jane Campion since Bright Star, and it’s hailed as one of the year’s best and a serious awards contender. And while I’m quite taken by this Western, I have a few reservations because I’m not entirely convinced its portrait of a rancher in crisis is all that revelatory. As a study of masculinity, The Power of the Dog is fairly familiar in what it says about how trying to live up to others’ ideas of what it means to be a man can lead to ruin. But even if its insights don’t cut all that deeply, this is nonetheless a superb drama about some very sad people trapped in the middle of paradise.
Set in Montana in the 1920s, and based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, the film starts off as a study of two brothers who couldn’t be more different. George (Jesse Plemons) is well-mannered and well-dressed — a gentleman through and through — while Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a coarser sort, bullying and grubby. They’re prosperous ranchers, and from the jump we suspect that the uncouth men who work for them respect Phil more than George. (George is a little too fancy for their taste, while Phil is a real man.) And Phil certainly enjoys holding this over George, calling him “Fatso” and flaunting his one-of-the-guys demeanor. Phil is a disciple of Bronco Henry, their long-dead friend who was, in Phil’s mind, the last of the authentic cowboys. Phil has no patience for pretensions or even bathing — all of that stuff is for sissies.
So you can imagine how Phil feels when George impulsively marries Rose (Kirsten Dunst), a lowly waitress at a local eatery who’s the mother of Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), an effete young man studying to become a doctor. Phil assumes this widow is after George’s money — and as for the kid, hell, he’s nothing but a wimpy embarrassment. But George doesn’t much care what Phil thinks, and soon Rose and Peter move into Phil and George’s huge house on their massive ranch, the gorgeous hills and mountains stretching out into the distance. Most people would try to make the best of it, but Phil prides himself on not being most people, finding unique ways to torture his new roomies. With Rose, who plays a little piano but is hardly confident about it, he mocks her by showing off his superior skill at the banjo. But that’s nothing compared to how sadistic Phil is with Peter, recruiting his cowboys to join him in picking on the boy, turning the majestic landscape into a hellish schoolyard.
There are surprises in store — including how the story shifts focus regarding who its main characters are — but I think its principal twist is one that probably won’t feel much like a twist in 2021. I don’t want to reveal it outright — although it’s pretty easy to find online — so I’ll instead quote from Time film critic Stephanie Zacharek‘s rave, where she advises, “If your latent-homosexuality alert hasn’t gone off yet, it may be time to calibrate the settings.”
On screen, Cumberbatch has often played sophisticated, witty characters, so it’s refreshing to see him take on Phil, who’s nothing but a macho jerk. His American accent slightly menacing, his eyes with no spark in them, Cumberbatch gives us an intimidating portrait of unbending manliness that’s ripe for comeuppance. Phil lords his superiority over others — it’s not just that he’s the toughest dude in town, he’s also the richest — but his swagger is such a blatant overcompensation for buried insecurities that there’s almost something poignant about his bullying. As much as he teases George, his brother is the closest person in his life, and so losing him to Rose feels monumental, although you’d never get Phil to admit to that. Instead, he’s an asshole to her, acting out his feelings of being abandoned by resorting to childishness.
Campion has long been interested in masculinity — and how men navigate around the rules that govern how they “should” behave. (Think of Harvey Keitel’s tender performance as Holly Hunter’s potential paramour in The Piano, another movie about characters imprisoned in beautiful surroundings.) And the longer we spend with Phil, the more she pokes at his hard exterior, relishing the complexities she finds underneath. My favorite baffling detail is how learned Phil actually proves to be — what drove him to reject his impressive education and take on the air of an earthy malcontent?
The answer to that question is embedded in Cumberbatch’s layered performance, which slowly starts to reveal cracks in Phil’s carefully constructed veneer. And yet there’s always the threat of violence with this cowboy — especially as he takes more of an interest in Peter, who isn’t quite sure how to feel about Phil’s gestures toward friendship. The Power of the Dog is primarily interested in Phil’s expression of masculinity, but Peter’s and George’s unashamed softness are equally compelling because we recognize how rare they must be in this aggressively manly world. (If that point wasn’t obvious, Campion underlines it by including a scene where Phil brutally castrates an animal in close-up.)
In a sense, that’s what Phil wants to do to everyone around him — strip them of their manhood so that his reigns supreme. But ultimately, The Power of the Dog is about how Phil realizes that he can never be macho enough to make that wish come true — no one can fully scare off the world with its unwelcome emotions and myriad individuals, each of them pursuing their own desires and somehow immune to his need to be king. Cumberbatch communicates the quiet desperation of a man who can’t ever acknowledge that sentiment himself. The misery Phil inflicts on those around him — especially Rose, who seems to implode under the weight of his cruelty — will never match the anguish going on inside him.
We think of cowboys as being strong, standing tall, impervious to the elements, the shifting of time, their own vulnerabilities. Most of us can’t live up to that image. In The Power of the Dog, Phil learns he can’t, either.