“The Power of the Dog”, to whatever degree sublimated, rests in the arena of patriarchal masculinities. It is a Western genre at its very core; harsh wilderness, horse riding, dusty boots, and ugly revenge. The stereotypical portrayal of masculine ideals among Hollywood cowboys is abundantly embellished. While it still redeems the nostalgia of rugged masculine culture, it continues to inhabit gendered social relations with sexual transgressions, ultimately blending the clichés of the genre with gay melodrama.
Patriarchy as the Premise of Toxic Heterosexual Masculinity
Unlike Ennis del Mar in Ang Lee’s 2005 “Brokeback Mountain”, the suffering protagonist Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) does not engage in a romantic camaraderie. Phil is the definitive men-behaving-badly trope. He exercises a compelling charm as an affluent rancher and gets along well with his buddies. Yet, his misdemeanors propound prime attributes conducive to glorified masculine authorities. He encompasses a range of hostile attitudes toward the mere presence of Peter Gordon (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a reticent, sensitive teenage boy with a blunt manifestation of effeminate physicality and behavior. Phil oftentimes derides Peter with gay-associated derogatory names.
While it is disheartening to see that Phil’s internalized homophobia has unnerved Peter, Director Jane Campion uses these two clashing characters as a plot device, as viewers see Phil’s and Peter’s character grow in the direction that takes an unexpected turn. The film reveals depths and contradictions in the course of their unlikely relationship.
*WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS AND ADULT THEMES*
Homophobia and Latent Homosexuality
Behind his tough look and rugged manly attire, Phil is a character of complexities that deserves exploration of an intriguingly hidden past. We witness Phil take out a handkerchief (that belonged to Bronco Harris, his late mentor, whom he idolizes) for a masturbation session. The scene comes right before Peter bumps into a stash of gay adult magazines with Bronco Henry’s name on them.
Oddly, Phil shows fatherly attentiveness to Peter. They spend time together in the uncivilized wilderness, with Phil offering him seemingly gay conversion practices in the rancher ways, such as horse riding. Perhaps, Phil is fascinated that Peter, too, recognizes the same snarling-dog shadow up on the mountainside. Or he perhaps witnesses Peter’s vulnerability after Peter opens up about his father’s grim suicide.
Phil is facing a crisis in masculinity, lonely and dysfunctional. But he consciously represses it so that he looks functional in the eyes of society in which homosexuality was overly toxic in 1920s Montana.
Female Threat to Masculine Authority
Phil and his brother, George Burbank (Jesse Plemons), have had a shared bedroom with twin beds since childhood. George is a well-mannered and gentlemanly brother. Phil exerts a high degree of demandingness on George, sometimes stripping him of his authority in the household. George is also harrowed by Phil with taunts due to his extra weight.
To Phil’s great dismay, George soon falls in love with and marries Peter’s widowed mother, Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst). Once Rose steps into the siblings’ household, Phil makes it his business, as he always does, to aggravate her as he believes she marries his brother for financial perks.
The Burbank siblings draw comparison (albeit uncalled for) with the Baker Boys in “The Fabulous Baker Boys” (1989). Frank Baker (Beau Bridges), the older sibling, is the ‘wife’ in the sibling relationship as he shows maternal, nurturing attention to Jack Baker (Jeff Bridges). When George finds Phil sickened in bed, he takes the matter into his own hands and removes Phil’s boots for him. Perhaps, that bond explains how they continue to share a bedroom during adulthood.
A further comparison may be drawn as Rose Gordon is as memorable as Suzie Diamond (Michelle Pfeiffer). When Rose comes aboard, the Burbanks become separated, emotionally and physically. Phil’s disdain for Rose’s arrival in the family unit elicits existential concerns for him. She poses a threat to a system of power relations that establishes Phil’s primary authority, privilege, and leadership.
The uneasy bond between Phil and Rose breaks out not because of anything Rose does in particular. It is a reflection of profound loneliness. There’s a tender and subtle acknowledgment that all three leading men are susceptible to loneliness and moments of emotional tears; Peter when he becomes the object of Phil’s derision, George when he dances with Rose (“How nice it is not to be alone”), and Phil after overhearing Rose and George’s coital bliss next door. The line between “big boys don’t cry” and “be a man” becomes suddenly thin.
The Ugly Revenge
Jane Campion leaves an understated tragedy in the conclusiveness to Phil and Rose feud by the scheming little mind of Rose’s son, Peter. Earlier in the film, Phil gets a bad cut on his hand while cornering and killing a rabbit. Nearing the final scene upon Phil braiding a new lasso, Peter offers a rawhide that he cuts from an infected cow. Having no knowledge of the infected rawhide, Phil soaks it with the open gash on his hand without gloves. He dies the next day, most likely from anthrax, as the doctor speculates.
On the day of Phil’s funeral, Peter stays home and reads a Bible verse Psalm 22:20; “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.”
Peter’s revenge on Phil is rather a form of justice than retribution. Peter narrates the voiceover in the opening sequence that is never repeated in the film; “When my father passed, I wanted nothing more than my mother’s happiness. What kind of man would I be, if I did not help my mother?”
By the end of the film, right after Phil’s funeral, Peter witnesses his mother and his stepfather George in a warm embrace sharing a kiss, which puts a little smile on his face. A smile that accounts for Phil’s demise.
For Phil Burbank, it is a patriarchal struggle that he must navigate with a devastating consequence of toxic masculinity and its relations with the stereotypically harsh Western landscape. For Peter Gordon, it is a tale of revenge and liberating his mother (to whom ‘my darling’ figuratively refers) from the power of the dog–the toxic, patriarchal alpha male.
“The Power of the Dog” is streaming on Netflix now.