Director: Jane Campion
Screenplay: Jane Campion based on The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage
Cinematography: Ari Wegner; Editing: Peter Sciberras
Art Department: Grant Major & Amber Richards; Costume: Kirsty Cameron; Score: Jonny Greenwood
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch (Phil Burbank), Kirsten Dunst (Rose Gordon), Jesse Plemons (George Burbank), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Peter Gordon), Peter Carroll (Old Gent Burbank), Frances Conroy (Old Lady Burbank), Keith Carradine (Governor Edward), Thomasin McKenzie (Lola), Genevieve Lemon (Mrs. Lewis), Adam Beach (Edward Nappo)
The Power of the Dog is a Western, but in tackling it, director Jane Campion has imbued proceedings with a hothouse sense of emotional unease, complete with roiling thunderstorms on the distant horizon, and tempests raging beneath the placid surface. It suggests something darker and far more tormented than your average oater. Something penned by the Brontë sisters perhaps. Adapted from Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel, it feels like pure American Gothic. As with many Westerns, The Power of the Dog concerns the coming of civilization to the final frontier outposts of early 20th century America – the most obstinate holdouts, on the fringes of her sweeping mechanical revolution. And in keeping with this grand theme, the movie’s been scaled toward the overarchingly epic. Which was probably a mistake, given the modest cast and budget. But despite this apparent pinch, The Power of the Dog possesses a sprawling visual scope. Much as Kathryn Bigelow did war films, with The Hurt Locker over a decade ago, Campion likewise imbues this characteristically masculine genre with a distinctly feminine touch, casting a woman’s gaze over proceedings that the roughshod Western has rarely withered under.
Opening in Montana, in 1925, The Power of the Dog concerns two cattlemen, rancher brothers who couldn’t be more different – Phil (played by BenedictCumberbatch), who lives his life as if they were still roughing it in some settlement camp in the wilds, and George (played by Jesse Plemons), who has begun to gravitate toward a more genteel lifestyle, as they’ve grown increasingly prosperous with time. Drifting apart, they suddenly find themselves further divided over George’s decision to marry a widow, Rose (played by Kirsten Dunst), who runs the local restaurant and hotel. Jealous and resentful of this new arrangement, believing the intruder in their home has stolen his brother from him, Phil begins a subtle campaign of psychological intimidation designed to make the blushing new bride’s life miserable. And when Rose’s weakling son Peter (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) returns from college, Phil sets his sights on working out his vengeance on the second generation.
Campion seems a tad beholden to her literary source material, to the point of incorporating chapter marks, as seen in several other movies this year, including The French Dispatch and The Last Duel. Still, she’s adapted Savage’s novel in such a way that allows it to be tucked quite snugly into her own standing oeuvre. As with the auteur’s arthouse hit The Piano (1993), Campion again finds herself exploring that teeming intersection between the civilized and the savage. At least in the form of arduous colonial life, as it’s lived out on a frontier only recently tamed. Here settlers erect genteel tennis nets on the flat arid plains, evoking that rediscovered photo of Billy the Kid and his Regulators, playing croquet.
In The Power of the Dog, America’s early 20th century Midwest has supplanted The Piano’s 19th century New Zealand. Yet we’re again shown how women like Rose, with her hotel and restaurant in the vanguard of ever encroaching civilization, attempt to establish order by maintaining the genteel formalities of polite society. Even here in the wilderness sprawl, she insists on teatime, using delicate crockery and china. As in The Piano, pre-established family dynamics are thrown into dangerous and unsettled disarray over the introduction of an out-of-place female, imported in from elsewhere, and foreign to their established ways. The resulting entanglements can almost be diagrammed directly from one film to the other.
With Kirsten Dunst’s Rose replacing Holly Hunter’s Ada as the mail-order bride, Jesse Plemons taking the place of Sam Neill as her reticent and uncertain new husband, unsure how best to please her. Benedict Cumberbatch, as the uncivilized wild man subsisting on the fringes of society, takes on the Harvey Keitel persona. And Kodi Smit-McPhee’s Peter the seemingly innocent little Anna Paquin’s, with her own precocious discovery of sex, and seeming betrayal of her idolized mother. Yet the dynamics of these intertwined relationships have been shifted and realigned, so that they seem utterly new and unique, while still possessing the similar, electrified air of dramatic lightning sparks. It’s a glorious return to form for Campion.
Even with The Power of the Dog’s American setting and Western themes, Campion remains on familiar ground. Downplaying the differences between one continent and another, she shoots the vastness of the American Midwest, with its rolling green prairies and dipping hills and dales, as if it were her own New Zealand. As in fact it is, with the entire film being shot in Aotearoa by cinematographer Ari Wegner. Which may be why the mountainous terrain tends to look so exotic at times, with green hues that turn to blue under certain shades of light.
Effortlessly blurring the world’s vast, unpopulated interior plains, by stressing the similarity of their scenic beauty and topography, Campion’s cowboys might just as easily be wrangling steers in the dusty Outback. One can easily imagine the movie reset Down Under, with powerfully built dingoes instead of dogs. Certainly, English actor Cumberbatch fits the image of an Aussie stockman as much as he does an old timey cowboy. Just as Australian actor Kodi Smit-McPhee seems the total jackaroo.
The visual look of the film, with deep, ominous shadows cast among the greenery, at times recalls that of First Cow, Kelly Reichardt’s film from last year, which was itself set on the British Columbia frontier and raised many similar themes. At times, Wegner’s camera might catch a herd of cattle lined up on the brim of a ridge in the distance, under spreading sunbeams shimmering down from an overcast sky. The time period is the ‘20s, the midst of the Jazz Age, but it feels as if this could be set a half century earlier if it weren’t were certain shots, such as of tinhorn lizzies traversing miles of open plain.
This, along with the ominous tone and strange relationship between the older and younger man, evoke Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will be Blood, which also played out against the changing landscape of early 20th century America. This movie originally even had Paul Dano cast in the Jesse Plemons part. Certain cattle formations recall Ang Lee’s groupings of the sheep herd in Brokeback Mountain. Which is likely no coincidence, since The Power of the Dog delves into comparable issues concerning toxic masculinity and what it takes to be perceived as a ‘real’ man in a dying Wild West that had already entered the wider, popular imagination.
As with the ending of John Ford’s The Searchers, Campion frequently frames her actors in archways, transitional spaces suggesting both forward movement into the future, and egress into the past. Like other Westerns, The Power of the Dog establishes its fundamental conflict between the country’s primitive, rugged past, and her quickly encroaching civilization, portended by the coming of the highway, much as it was the railroad in earlier movies. Alongside the building of permanent wooden structures signaling civilization is here to stay, along with its associated accoutrements of soft living.
Representing all that is refined and tasteful, Rose’s hotel and diner are displacing the traditional saloon and whorehouse. The ungroomed cowboys must now mind their manners while eating at Rose’s, whereas in the old days they cooked their gamey meals over the open range, freely belching, scratching and practicing their aim with spittoons. Before things became so refined, as Phil reminisces, they used to be allowed to wolf down their meals in the saloon while standing at the bar drinking.
The changing times are laid out baldly in the opening scene, where George is shown attempting to maintain some hygienic decorum, introduced as he is perfuming and pomading himself in the bath. George has the complacent spread of a man who appreciates the amenities modern society has to offer. All lean, wiry muscle, Phil on the other hand dismissively refers to his brother as ‘fatso,’ having long lost the edge of a predatory hunter, who must scrounge for his food. Phil claims to have never deigned to use such highfalutin’ accommodations, doing his washing in the creek, as he believes he-men should, the open-air their natural habitat. While George is smitten with Rose, and wants to impress her by spiffing up his appearance, domineering Phil looks down on him for attempting to better himself by conforming to the expectations of the civilized world. He mocks his fine new feathers as if cleanliness were next to forgetting where he came from. George is satisfied to settle down to a mundane life of domesticity, motoring around in the sort of horseless carriage Phil himself would never be caught dead in. Where Phil is anxious to head out on a cattle drive first thing in the morning, George is reticent to abandon all the creature comforts home has to offer. He’s too settled in to needlessly challenge himself against the elements. Hence these siblings come off like the characters in such movies as Angels with Dirty Faces and Manhattan Melodrama, who take drastically different paths in life.
Ignoring George when he clangs the feed bell, their ranch hands only respond to Phil’s orders, obediently filing out after him for dinner, pointedly noting that, “The boss is leaving.” Proudly eking out an existence alongside his fellow cowpokes, in his well-worn dungarees, as if he still had to scratch out the soil on his own place, the film makes it seem as though this still made Phil one of the common folk. While elitist George sits high in the saddle, looking down on them, having long ago forsaken their uncouth company for more cultured society. He even wears an anachronistic boiled suit during the brothers’ last cattle drive together, which indicates the closing of the West as they’ve known it, as surely as the final roundup did in Red River. And Phil can’t bear to see it go. He won’t let it go. Determined to fight every inch of the way against the newfangled century creeping in on him, threatening to make both him and his lifestyle redundant.
Now that he’s set his sights on the old ball and chain, Phil is aghast watching his brother being willfully tamed and domesticated. Though long dead, Phil frequently cites their revered mentor Bronco Henry, reminding his brother they owe everything to his having taught them about ranching and herding. Embedded in the glowing ambers of an admiring young boy’s first man crush, Phil himself continues to adhere zealously, almost religiously, in both thought and deed to what old Henry taught him. Though we learn he once studied English at school, this is the only knowledge Phil considers worth having, chastising George for sacrilegiously turning his back on such teachings. Phil will even raise a toast, “To us brothers, Romulus and Remus and the wolf who raised us.” Reminding viewers what would become of the two famous founders of Rome, following their falling out.
Phil feels betrayed, silently observing George’s attempts to now become part of the emerging civilization they rejected in their youth. To him, he’s selling out, turning his back on their shared past where they’d grown up rough in the saddle. George even dons an apron to help understaffed Rose serve her customers, assuming the domestic duties of cooking and cleaning in a shocking way Phil had mocked Rose’s son for doing earlier. He believes no real man would ever willingly lower himself to that level. His wearing an apron is intended to demonstrate how much more broadminded George is, concerning the fluidity of traditional gender ‘roles’ in these changing times. Phil’s growing resentment toward his brother gets all jumbled up inside with feelings of emotional abandonment and rejection. Being left behind by this turncoat becomes symbolic of his being left behind by the times themselves, which are swiftly passing him by.
Aspiring to the finer things in life by courting the respectable Rose and entertaining high society, George even claims, when serving his visiting parents (played by Peter Carroll and Frances Conroy) drinks adorned with fancy paper umbrellas, that their spread has become ‘an island of civilization’ in the wilds of Montana. Indication of the showplace he’s trying to turn his home into, one worthy of their cultured presence. Something Phil, kicking and screaming against having the rusticity refined right out of him, refuses to allow to happen. There’s a fascinating suggestion of an epic Cain and Abel struggle roiling just beneath the incompatible brothers’ surface rapport, a theme worthy of Steinbeck’s East of Eden. But the movie fails to exploit it. George and Phil should be like antagonistic bulls trying to buffalo each other across the screen for supremacy. Instead, the biblical allegory has been reworked to absolve Rose, the traditional figure of Eve, for intruding into their private Eden.
Phil, we come to find, grew up quite wealthy and cultured, but has become the black sheep of his family. Giving us insight into his mockery of his brother’s desire to return to life among the swells with, “Well, suh. Ain’t we going into high society.” Phil can’t bear to appear on command, as requested, any more than Rose can bring herself to civilly sing for her supper, by playing piano for the entertainment of her betters. When told the governor (played by Keith Carradine), and their parents are coming to meet the bride, Phil reacts as if insulted they “might mind if you come to the table without a washup.” The very sort he considers George weak sauce for pampering himself with. In concept, Phil is the embodiment of man’s savage, primitive past, having just recently emerged from the primordial ooze, as when he covers himself in mud, instead of soap, to take his dip in the creek. He’s the sort of remnant Neanderthal newly emerging society won’t stoop to be reminded of, as they turn their backs on olden times.
In a sense, Phil is also linked to the indigenous natives, Edward Nappo and his son (played by Adam Beech and Maeson Stone Skuccedal), who nomadically travel the land, adhering to the increasingly outmoded tribal customs they were brought up on. Still bartering in trade, rather than paying in cash, they’re likewise becoming vestiges of a disappearing way of life. Rather than recognizing their affinity though, Phil’s villainy spreads into racist realms, when he tells his men to push any camping Indians off the property because he believes them all to be thieves. And, “we have things they want to eat,” such as the dog Peter is seen playing with, and which will lend itself to the title.
Not unlike the Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights, it’s civilization itself Phil’s really at war with, the impending influence of corrupting refinement and cultivation which degrades roughhewn men of the soil like himself. Phil’s hostile to all civilized things that threaten his livelihood and sense of self. Everything running counter to the concepts Bronco Henry instilled in him, despite a changing world that no longer holds their sex to the same rugged standards. His open, undeclared range war against progress is so ingrained in Phil’s swaggering macho psyche, he fools himself into believing he can ward off the inevitable forever.
This characterization is a quite startling departure for Cumberbatch, whose onscreen persona heretofore, has generally consisted of one of intellectual cipher. His bailiwick is in playing brainy, overly cultured men who live their lives in their heads, like Sherlock Holmes, Louis Wain and Alan Turing, his previous, Oscar-nominated role in The Imitation Game. They’re men who have intellectualized themselves to such lengths, they seem to have suppressed all contact with their elementary human emotions, closing them off from their internal primal howl. Which makes what Cumberbatch is going for in his Power of the Dog performance so fascinating. Here he’s swung to the opposite extreme of the spectrum, playing a lout so earthy, uncultured and ignorant, he must scramble around in his head to dredge up the right words for ‘facts’ and ‘alcoholism.’
Rather than an enquiring mind, Cumberbatch is all brute force and instinctual ferocity here, a violent, bushy dust devil, with the gleam of Old Scratch in his eyes. He spells trouble a mile off, one itchy trigger-finger away from gunning someone down in cold blood. Greasy hair slicked back and messily parted in the middle, he parades about in his spurs and furry chaps, imparting the impression, from the waist down, of a cloven-hooved devil. When he marches with his men down the main street of town, they’re like gun slingers waiting to shoot down the sheriff in a High Noon showdown.
This is a grand, flawed, tragic character Cumberbatch has created, and he imparts a mythic, larger than life quality to it, on par with other Wild West legends and lore. If the title and that earlier Romulus and Remus reference hadn’t conveyed as much, Cumberbatch has reinvented himself for this role, revealing an entirely new facet to his personality by becoming downright wolfish. And this has certainly been the actor’s year for changing up his look. He’s appeared in The Electrical Life of Louis Wain, The Courier and as Doctor Strange in Spider-Man: No Way Home. Pulling his English-cadenced accent down a few octaves, into a low drawl that sounds on the same wavelength as a growl, the actor suggests Il Lobo personified. It’s the animal in him, a wild wolf resistant to being collared and chained.
When Phil’s gaze shifts mysteriously to the mountains, convincing his superstitious ranch hands he has the visionary sight his provincial brother lacks, the pareidolia of a barking dog is insinuated to be a vision only he, as the last of the primitive men to emerge from America’s primeval Western past, remains sentient enough to see. Kindred spirit Peter is alone deemed worthy of sharing such esoteric knowledge. And so, Phil is free to additionally reveal that there’s a mountain back in the hills with ‘1805’ carved into it, from the long-ago Lewis and Clark Expedition, when the virgin landscape still lay unchartered, and unblighted by crisscrossing railway lines and structures cutting the scenic view. Phil romanticizes this time in America’s past, one when, he professes the belief, “They were real men in those days.”
In Giant (1956), Elizabeth Taylor’s newlywed bride found herself at immediate odds with husband Rock Hudson’s sister, played intimidatingly by Mercedes McCambridge, who believed she’d go on running the house as before, without any interference from the new mistress. A similar dichotomy is established in The Power of the Dog, with Phil even abusing a helpless horse in effigy. In this film, the presence of a woman in the house is viewed as a threat to male sovereignty, and the brothers’ inviolable bond. The Rose character is painted by Phil as a cheap schemer who bedazzled his foolish brother, intentionally driving a wedge between him and George. It’s made clear that he feels she’s coming between the two of them, who are seen sharing the same room at home, and the same hotel bed in town, as if they were still inseparable little boys.
The rare cowboy who seeks no female companionship while accompanying his “tomcattin” men into town, Phil instead sits up late nights, until George returns from roaming, suspiciously responding to his long absences as if he were a henpecking wife, fearing her husband were throwing her over for another woman. So, despite all his tough talk about being a man, it’s this gnawing fear we see reflected behind Phil’s eyes, controlling his impulsive behavior in the film’s first half. The sense of abandonment Phil falls prey to when he returns to the hotel to find his brother missing, reveals the true feeling he tries so desperately to disguise with bluff and bluster. George and Rose’s newfound co-dependence is an affront to this loner’s nascent self-sufficiency, and the squeaking sounds of them christening their connubial bed is enough to drive him up the wall and out the house
Joint, roaming tumbleweeds before George began looking toward the future, choosing to invest in a permanent home, then populate it with a readymade family, Phil, who was never consulted about the marriage that disrupts his life, regards Rose as a interloper. He’d been quite content with their bachelor lifestyle and presumed things would go on just like that forever. He believes the secluded, all-male space that he’s established on the ranch, the last vestige where men can openly and unapologetically be course, vulgar, undomesticated beasts, is being infringed upon by the civilizing influence of this female. Much as her sex would further insist on doing, to male chagrin, throughout the remainder of the century, by likewise moving into previously all-male bastions, such as sports, politics, the military. Much as another lone female, Keira Knightly, inserted herself into Cumberbatch’s all-male, war-time cryptography unit in The Imitation Game. Only here, Rose can’t help ruffling his feathers, inducing Phil to pointedly shun her presence in his home. Which is, on a personal level, his equivalent of hanging a ‘no girls allowed’ sign on the clubhouse.
With just a few tweaks, this same subject has been treated amusingly in other films. Especially other Westerns, with dusty, crotchety old, set-in-their-way saddle tramps perturbed by a female reorganizing the house, and turning their lives upside down. But Campion holds such tight emotional control over Power of the Dog, it comes to suggest quite chilling connotations, with Phil seeking to avenge himself by psychologically tormenting Rose. According her a chilly reception when the newlyweds return home from their honeymoon, the imposing silent treatment he gives Rose seems a restrained display of his dark arts, like the mute Ada in The Piano, who noted that “silence affects everyone in the end.”
His implicit menace reverberates less to the threat of what’s said, than the unspoken dread of what isn’t. Phil’s very presence is an implied gesture of intimidation through indirect aggression. A vengeance bent wraith, he comes to command complete psychological control over the house and everyone in it. Unfortunately, Campion doesn’t exploit this manor properly, as it becomes ever more bleak, oppressive and haunted by anger and hate, with Phil spitefully sulking about in the shadows like a specter. Appearing like an outcropping of the mountains beneath which it stands, there’s no attempt to turn this great rambling tumbledown, plunked down in the middle of nowhere, into a character in its own right, though much of the drama is confined within it intimidating interiors, dominated by oppressively dark wood and mounted animal trophies.
The movie emerges as an out and out struggle for supremacy between diametrically opposed forces – the civilized future represented by Rose, or the savage past embodied by Phil. And only one can prevail in the end. The two even face off musically, with Rose having learned piano accompanying silent movies. Campion references her earlier arthouse hit, with shots of the imported baby grand being drug through the primitive mud by an unappreciative herd of backward cowhands, and into the house, culture having invaded the premises, as it did in The Piano. As Rose tinkles the ivory keys, sitting with perfect posture, we hear Phil picking up her melody on his banjo. We think at first he’s attempting to engage in a duet. But Phil can’t abide music any more cultured than the folksy ballads he strums on his roughhewn wooden instrument. He even rages against the playerless pianola spitting out its programmed tunes at the diner. So, in a great moment for composer Jonny Greenwood, rather than harmonizing, the scene devolves into a reworking of dueling banjos, from John Boorman’s Deliverance (of 1972). Not coincidentally, that film too revolved around similar themes, concerning the place of masculinity in modern society, and the primal struggle between the civilized and the savage.
Hovering about like a fly on the wall, Phil’s prosecutorial whistle, like Peter Lorre’s equally ominous one in Fritz Lang’s M, marks down every misstep Rose takes adjusting into her new marriage. Her growing anxiety cripples her ability to play before her husband’s guests, and drives her to the bottle just to keep her nerve up around this prowling apostle of hate. My God, he’s like Mrs. Danvers, waiting inexorably in the wings, for the inexperienced new mistress to slip up, proving who the real master of the manor remains.
It’s hard to believe Kirsten Dunst is old enough to be playing the mother of a nearly full-grown man. It dates us all. Reunited with real-life partner Plemons for the first time since season two of Fargo, they rekindle the same sweet magic, their relationship the only pure and untainted one in the movie. She’s introduced mopping the floor at the hotel, her own hair wet from a recent shower, as George was first seen in the bathtub, indication of why they’re perfect for each other, both trying to maintain some semblance of civility and breeding, even on the wild frontier.
A former cook and waitress, Rose, wanting to keep busy, early on mixes in with the daily duties of her domestic staff (including Thomasin McKenzie’s maid Lola, which turns out to be just a glorified cameo). But this democratic approach to ranch work isn’t followed through, any more than it was with the depiction of Phil as a plebian, and his brother as a patrician. So, when Rose slips into the life of a secret lush, it’s not explained why keeping her idle hands busy in this way failed to keep her off the sauce. The abrasive nature of this rough life, living under Phil’s fixed, accusatory gaze, leaves her at her breaking point. (He’s like a psychic bloodsucker from Dunst’s Interview with a Vampire, draining her of her life force). It’s usually menacing, intimidating husbands who drive their wives into becoming nervous wrecks, with their icy disdain and piercing criticisms in movies like Gaslight, The Woman in White, Edward My Son, The Paradine Case and The Good Shepherd. But it’s brother-in-law Phil who steps into that role here, isolating Rose to make her feel paranoid and crazy, egging her on to the same suicidal path her husband took. We wonder that he doesn’t go full Iago, and start whispering baseless suspicions in his brother’s ear, until we see he’s reserved this ploy for Peter.
As in I’m Thinking of Ending Things, Plemons again underplays his part, allowing his feckless character to progressively recede into the background, until he’s permitted to all but disappear from the last half of the picture, when his presence is most needed. It’s never explained for instance, why he lets his brother’s presence in the house terrorize his new wife the way it does. It’s not as if he felt some division of loyalties between them. Phil may taciturnly refuse to leave the old house, but that doesn’t mean George can’t up and remove his family from the destructive situation. But oddly, I don’t recall the issue ever being raised during the film, much less being discussed between husband and wife.
George remains infuriatingly in the dark about everything, seeming to take little notice one way or another, despite Rose feeling like she’s trapped in the house with a dark presence who wishes her harm. So, we become increasingly alienated from George, feeling he is deserting his frightened new bride, when he should be there protecting her, leaving the door open for her son to step in. Dunst’s best scene comes very late in the picture, after she’s been run ragged, and makes the defiant decision to sell off the cow hide pelts Phil had set aside to make a lariat for her boy. This bold move clears the way for the similar removal of equally tough, calloused Phil from her life altogether, and the return of a little tenderness. Which is why the actress puts so much emotion into the scene, entranced by the ‘deliciously soft’ fur gloves the Shoshone give her in exchange for the rawhide.
It takes a spell before we begin unthreading Campion’s well-wound yarn, but once the primary power struggle between the civilized and the savage, as embodied by this man and this woman, has been diagramed out for us, we can settle back and appreciate the maneuvers they employ against one another, like parents battling over who their boy should take after.
As Peter, the widow’s son from her first marriage, whose affections both parties will eventually find themselves sparring over, Kodi Schmidt-McPhee has been playing beta to omega animals for so long, including a vampire bat in Let Me In, an orangutan in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and the world’s first domesticated canine in Alpha, it seems preordained somehow to expect him to be turned bitch by The Power of the Dog.
Buried beneath a ten-gallon hat that gives him the appearance of a parson, while clodhopping about in gleaming white tennis shoes which fairly shriek dandy, he’s a total dude. He recalls college boy Buster Keaton in Steamboat Bill Jr., just before his hulking father got a gander at his beret and ukulele, and immediately drug him to the tailor for a makeover. Initially, his Peter seems such a human question mark, we’re not sure how we’re supposed to take him. The way he obsessively strokes the spikes of his comb for instance, as if he’s contemplating things or trying to focus, makes him seem to be on the high functioning end of the autism spectrum, when the filmmakers likely just intended to give him a sociopathic tic instead. The shafts of hair falling into his face make him resemble Conrad Veidt’s Cesare in The Cabinet of Caligari, and he’s frequently posed and lighted like a character from some spook film.
Painfully slim to the point of emaciation, Smit-McPhee appears to have shot into adulthood without any intermediary period to allow him to fully fill out. Impossibly, somehow, he’s reached the height of a fully grown man while retaining the sort of gangly, pencil thin figure of a teenager. Only partly formed, he’s a beanstalk caught midway, shooting up to the sky. With his large, soft eyes and ruby lips, the actor still retains the same face he had as a cherubic child a decade back. Only now his head’s piked atop a scarecrow’s frame. Which makes him appear ridiculous when he’s corralled into the sort of rough and rugged ‘manly’ pursuits that require strong hands and a sturdy frame. When he rides, he sways from side to side, seemingly slipping right out of the stirrups. Bouncing up and down in the saddle, he imparts the mental picture of an Ichabod Crane. Stuck, physically, somewhere between man and boy, he’s an easy target for bully Phil to push around, just as his little Owen was in Let Me In.
It’s not just Rose who feels out of place in this inhospitable, hyper-masculinized environ, but her gently bred son as well, which is why they feel so close. Stringy in his willowy way, Peter here is accomplished in the sort of arts men like Phil regard as ‘feminine,’ such as crafting, scrapbooking, arranging decorative floral patterns. His preferred past time involves gingerly cutting out paper flower designs that could most politely be described as spreading ‘rosebuds.’ As a seething Phil sneers, “Ain’t them purdy?” assuming the flowers were arranged by the delicate hands of a cultivated little lady.
And much like the aptly named Rose, who is posed holding her wedding bouquet or with orchids in her hair, Phil will be compelled to likewise crush and destroy these symbolic petals, needlessly crumpling them up or setting them alight. Obliterating all that represents the delicate and beautiful in the world – art, culture, the humanities – he can’t even abide these beautifying decorations, needing to destroy them simply for the implicit threat they represent to his roughhewn ways.
Campion extends her overarching theme here, concerning the civilized future and the savage past, beyond the representative figures of male and female. The Power of the Dog seeks to explore deeper channels, concerning the sociological construct of toxic masculinity, and how rigorously it was measured in the unforgiving Wild West. The movie opens in1925, which was around the same time a notorious newspaper editorial attempted to slander the character of silent film star Rudolph Valentino, by describing him as a ‘pink powder puff,’ singlehandedly responsible for the moral degeneration of America’s youth. And the lines of demarcation, concerning what made a man a ‘he-man,’ as opposed to a fancy boy, had been well-established onscreen by the mid-20s. As early as Alice Guy-Blanché’s Algie the Miner, in 1912, and Douglas Fairbanks’ Double Trouble in 1915, in fact.
So, the evolving concept of masculinity appears to have been as much on the nation’s mind a hundred years ago, as it has been lately, with GOP pundits hysterically urging their party to ‘raise their boys to be monsters,’ and more traditional moral majority scare tactics, such as claiming ‘masculinity is under attack’ by video gaming and porn watching liberals. While his mother wants to keep Peter innocent, cocooning him from harm, Phil wants to use the boy to get back at her, by crushing everything she’s carefully cultivated in her sensitive, tenderhearted, soft-spoken and well-mannered son, who’s something of a delicate paper flower himself. Stealing the weakling, the one thing she loves in the world, the same way he believes she stole his brother, will be vengeance on her. Just as he sees her having sexually lured his brother into marriage, Phil will exert his own wiles over the witless next generation, Peter easy prey from his perspective, just waiting for the plucking.
Rarely has the undiluted loathing and disgust some men feel for those they see as less masculine than themselves, and hence less worthwhile, been so caustically captured onscreen. Nor how intrinsically it’s tied up in latent feelings of misogyny and the denigration of women. As Phil tries to talk George out of his intentions toward Rose, he assures him that women only want one thing, reminding him how they were cajoled out of everything they had amassed early in life, by the sort of chippies they chased after in their youth. As he dismissively scoffs, “If it’s a piece of ass you’re after fatso, I’m damn sure you can get it without a license.”
This brute with only a thin veneer of civilization about him, wants to destroy Rose’s effeminate boy, who dutifully waits on the diner tables in his apron, like cultivated lawyer Jimmy Stewart in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence. Like Stewart in that film, Peter is openly abused for being such a domesticated tenderfoot in this rough and tumble West. He seems to represent everything Phil believes society twists and corrupts in men, by forcing them to suppress their naturally dominant natures. Phil will wage his war with both mother and son in his sights, for the threat they represent to his dying way of life, their learning and refinement unwittingly serving to push a tombstone up over it. Peter becomes the war zone between Rose, and the over-civilizing, feminine influence Phil will lead him to believe she’s been exerting over his entire life. As opposed to the manly virtues he’s enjoining him to adopt, in order to become his own man.
The two become angel and devil staking a claim on the boy’s soul, a sociological battle of the sexes as to what rearing methods boys should be nurtured under, in order to become well-adjusted men. Phil believes he can make a man of Peter by completely removing him from the sissifying sphere of feminine influence. Encouraging him to rebel against his mother’s authority, he questions, “Where would a man be if he always did what his mother told him?” Phil frames it as unnatural for Peter to still be hanging on to his mother’s apron strings at his age, advising “Don’t let your mom make a sissy out of you.”
The Oedipal relationship between the mother and son, around which the drama turns, isn’t explored or emphasized to the extent it should be, in order to justify everything that transpires. And something intrinsic at its core makes no sense whatever. When he’s packed off to school to get him out of the way, Peter appears to resent George, the man who comes between him and his mother, as much as Phil resents Rose. But there aren’t any scenes at all between the resentful boy and his new stepfather. So, the awkward relationship is just left there hanging. We get no sense of what George’s view of the boy is, if he too thinks him too soft, and sees his brother’s attempt to make a man of him as a positive intervention. Instead, a curious sense of displacement psychology soon takes effect. Rather than focusing his efforts on eliminating the new romantic rival for his mother’s affections, Pete’s actions instead pave the way for their happily ever after.
When the subject comes up that the graveyard has been dug up and relocated to make way for a new highway – civilization’s further progress – it’s not made clear if this is the same sparse cemetery out on the plains, we’d earlier seen Peter visiting, to attend to his father’s plot. But regardless, this scene is integral in showing us how bereft the boy feels after having been raised without a male authority figure in his life, leaving him easily pliable putty in Phil’s hands, already susceptible as he is to the influence of an older man. And it’s not lost on us that the ‘flowers’ Peter leaves on his father’s headstone are the same artificial ones Phil had made a show of denigrating at the diner.
Seeing him as weak, having been coddled by women all his life without a manly influence around, Phil, like many fathers, is willing to break the boy in order to make the sort of man of him he believes he should be, given his narrow definition. Phil’s expected breaking of the boy is preceded by his gelding the bulls, without gloves, a reference to which was made in Brokeback Mountain as well. It’s a tad much, even for foreshadowing. And he’s willing to start cracking the whip by breaking Peter’s long, tapering fingers, having him lassoing and roping until those soft hands designed for playing piano and crafting fine art are too swollen and chapped to be of any use to the muses. Determined to make him over in his own image, as Bronco Henry did with him, Phil’s like some sadistic football coach disgusted by the perplexing kid who prefers art and science over sport, believing only sweat, pain and arduous physical exertion can make real man of boys. He’s determined to whip Peter into shape.
Where Rose had taught George to dance, another of the civilizing graces that Phil believes no tough guy would readily partake in, he determines to teach Peter to bust broncs, in the interest of covertly breaking the boy himself, in body and spirit. Just as Phil was earlier shown working as one with the men, shoulder-to-shoulder, while George held himself above such riff raff, and Rose attempted to join the kitchen staff with the chores, the movie falsely suggests it will expand into a more all-encompassing study of class warfare, with privileged Peter, returned from school, being referred to as ‘Little Lord Fauntleroy’ by Phil and the other rowdy ranch hands. As in such old Freddie Bartholomew classics as Fauntleroy and Captains Courageous, the general point was always to make a man out of the affected little English elitist by teaching him some good old American crude.
Yet, while Phil starts out seeking revenge, subconsciously, along the way, he begins forging a more meaningful relationship with Peter, similar to the one he had experienced himself with his own father figure Bronco Henry. Indirectly, we come to better understand Phil’s relationship with his former mentor by watching his growing connection with Peter himself. Eventually, he even accords the boy the distinctive honor of sitting astride Henry’s old saddle, as he gently tussles the decorative leather fringe.
Trundling Peter off to college the minute his mother remarries, just to get him out from underfoot, seems as ignominious as being sent to boarding school in Switzerland. Hence, the boy feels just as cast off and abandoned as Phil does by his brother’s ‘desertion,’ establishing a strong bond between them that never existed beforehand. Tellingly, Phil begins to take a seeming shine to the kid, taking him under his wing, only after he’s caught him peeping on him while skinny dipping in the creek, leading Phil to suspect there may be an even deeper bond between them.
Though the scene cuts before we witness its aftermath, their relationship changes once Phil is stumbled across in his physically and emotionally naked state, fully exposing him while his defenses are down for the first time. And Campion stages it in such an off-center way, it’s the funniest scene in the movie, one of the most discordantly hilarious things I saw all year, with an enraged Cumberbatch emerging from the water bare-assed to chase after his shrieking observer, who’s hightailing it through the woods at supersonic speed, like Robert Mitchum, after being shot in the tail by Lillian Gish in The Night of the Hunter.
And since he’s the one who put the other cowpokes up to making fun of Peter in the first place, it seems fitting for Phil to assume the role of guardian now. Revealing an unexpectedly sensitive side, he begins softening up a bit, becoming more like Peter, rather than vice versa. Opening up about his past and his feelings, claiming old Henry “Taught me to use my eyes in ways other people can’t,” Phil’s practically proclaiming he can perceive this young buck, the only other person able to detect a shape in the shadows of the hills, for who and what he really is. Little realizing how short sighted his powers of perception actually are.
Seeing something in Peter he recognizes in himself, Phil, like old Henry, takes it upon himself to teach the kid how to cowboy up, a self-defense mechanism he believes necessary for simple survival in this rough and tumble western world, remarking that it’s “Sort of a lonesome place out here Pete. Unless you get in the swing of things.” Advice old Henry must surely have once given Phil himself, inducing him to adopt his swaggeringly macho airs to fit in, rather than stick out like Pete, a nail just waiting to get hammered down.
As with Brokeback Mountain, greater importance is placed on not seeming to be the ‘faggot’ and “Nancy’ the ruffians hoot at Peter for being at the picnic, rather than actually being gay. Though the scene is meant to reinforce an impervious Pete’s steely inner resolve, how comfortable he actually is in his own skin, it’s treated as if this were an everyday occurrence. There’s a strange emotional discord as he walks past the line of cowboys whistling catcalls and jeers, without taking the slightest notice.
Though both his mother and George stand by inertly watching, no one seems to register what’s happening, much less offer words of comfort, except for Phil of all people. This seems even more odd considering how broken up both Pete and his mother seemed after these same cowboys mocked his origami flower arrangements at the diner earlier. There’s no more ultimate rationale for this scene than there is for the gleaming white tennis shoes the movie makes such a point of showing him buying, though they’ll have no significant impact on the story, other than further emphasizing what a dude he is by standing out so sharply.
The Power of the Dog never makes clear what Rose thinks of the rather sudden relationship that crops up between Phil and Peter, but she clearly senses it to be anathema to everything she’s tried to bring him up to be, by exerting her civilizing influence over his entire life. Her response to the burgeoning relationship sprung up between her one love and one hate, seems one of mounting hysteria, which induces her to behave just like the overbearing, smothering female Phil is trying to make her out to be. Trying to shield her rebelling son from this bad influence, just drives him further into Phil’s company.
Sensing precisely what Phil is up to, in his diabolic game of reprisal, she fears he means to tempt her boy to the ‘dark side,’ by turning him into an uncouth beast, just like him. Under the pretext of embracing his nascent manhood, she fears he’ll be transformed into the very sort of brute she’s tried to breed out of him his entire life. The anxiety many mothers feel of being pushed away by their maturing children is made manifest when Phil literally entices Rose’s boy into the barn, then cruelly closes the ‘iron door’ on her, shutting her out of her son’s life as definitively as Diane Keaton was at the end of The Godfather II.
And we don’t dare entertain our own suspicions concerning what Phil may be further intending, when he offers to take Peter on that old Lewis and Clark trail up into the mountains, following it to the end. Though the invitation reeks of the promise of sexual exploration. An idea further carried through when the two indolently lounge beneath the shadow of the haystacks, Phil obverting his eyes as the once pale Peter examines his new tan line, denoting untold manly toils beneath the burning sun. Or hilariously hoist around wooden pikes in the shape of giant phalluses. And what in the world is the director thinking when she discreetly cuts from that seduction in the barn, to slow-mo images of the heaving haunches of horses, visually matching up these undulating flanks and hindquarters, with the rolling mountain scenery all around them. It’s a moment of utter lunacy that can be added to the year’s biggest artistic gaffes.
The Power of the Dog is flawed, but not profoundly, at least not on the surface. The Piano, which was written by Campion, grew organically piece by piece like a concerto, out of the events as they unfolded. Adapting a novel here, Campion seems to have gotten caught up in laying out her twists and turns, even when they don’t always feel emotionally prepared for. The forward moving drama relegates the secondary players to addendum. So, we learn virtually nothing of them, despite the presence on the ranch of a black cowboy and an indigenous native, who are treated like full equals. In Montana! In the ‘20s! And it’s never explained why the other cowboys don’t find it strange that Phil doesn’t display any desire to consort with the women in town. Or the peculiar way they react to him parading by on horseback, eying them up while they skinny dip. Conflicts are raised that are never followed through. Such as the loyalty of the men to Phil, rather than George, and how the ending will impact this.
Nor do we ever learn what precisely George’s own relationship was with the brothers’ hallowed mentor, Bronco Henry. If he were aware of the relationship he shared with his brother, George never breathes a word of it in the movie, though it’s hard to believe they could have kept it on the downlow in such sparse circumstances. Amusingly, after Peter espies Phil in the altogether, the pack of whooping cowhands who have seemed perfectly dignified up to this point, for some strange reason, start sauntering around wearing less and less, as if they were working some airbrushed photo shoot for Wrangler. The languorous eye Campion casts over their tautly toned torsos seems so similar to Phil’s own, it’s practically an appropriation of the sexually objectifying male gaze. And it’s not made clear if Campion is filming the ranch hands in this way to imply a whole new world of sexual consciousness that has suddenly opened up for Peter, one he was too innocent to be aware of heretofore.
The Power of the Dog gains in psychological insight the deeper we find ourselves sucked into the story. The entire thing is like one big fancy rope trick, similar to the love lariats Phil associates with his paramours, lassoing us in, as a captive audience. In essence, the movie is a well-wound psychological thriller intended to keep audiences spinning in anxiety, at ropes end. But in truth, the story never satisfactorily resolves the central conflict, as to what Phil’s ultimate intentions actually were toward Peter, and vice versa. Pitting their dual philosophies against one another, what old Henry said, “Man is made by patience and the odds against him,” alongside Peter’s own father’s insistence that mankind’s character is formed by ‘removing the obstacles before him,’ only serves to show us how the one emerges victorious over the other at the end. And The Power of the Dog loses a considerable measure of its dramatic power when it allows its larger-than-life central character to slip his moorings. He’s permitted to come across more and more as a tortured human being, rather than an elemental force of nature. Much was cloaked under Phil’s pretext of remaining mysteriously menacing and forever unknowable. Yet the movie forgets all about the seemingly innate primitive and savage aspects of the character, despite the fact that nearly all the film’s dramatic energy has been sparked by this.
The twists and turns, and interplay of the characters at the end, are spellbinding and hypnotic. Like a great mystery thriller, one gets the impression of watching a spider spinning its web, from the inside out. But I didn’t really find The Power of the Dog emotionally involving, given the dry, analytical air involved in the men slowly sizing one another up. One watches it coldly, detachedly, utterly without empathy; like the sociopathic McPhee character. Which may help explain why, after its big build up all awards season, it ended up walking away with only one Oscar.
The men’s steely standoff, a contest of wills, is intended to display who is really the best representative of masculinity, as it came to be defined and re-defined throughout the length of the 20th century. The sort who would destroy a helpless woman with seemingly no agency of her own, Tennessee Williams-style, or the one who would attempt to save her, like chivalrous Sir Galahad. So, the movie is, in essence, ultimately reduced to a glorified pissing contest. Where Phil needles, “Where would a man be if he always did what his mother told him?,” we’d do better to take stock of Peter’s opening line, “For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?” Which implies Peter is adhering to an inviolable code of moral honor entirely of his own devising, divorced from civilized laws, like the most virtuous cowboys of movies past.
The spinning windmills in both their minds, become a visual motif, repeated in spiraling imagery of Phil spinning that chair around at the diner, Peter playing with a hula hoop, and the universal golden spiral repeated in nature, forming the design of the flowers Peter cuts out. And ultimately, the worst of Phil’s ideas, in spinning a lariat as a present for a kid whose father ended his life at the end of a rope. Succumbing ultimately to his own version of arts and crafts, induces Phil to let his guard down enough so that Peter’s slow poison can bypass his hardened hide and seep into his blood, proving this tough old buzzard’s undoing. Phil, who was always so wary of women, finds himself instead deluded by what can be concealed behind a misleading male façade. Proving you can’t judge a book by its cover. In traditional westerns one knew who was good and who was bad, and there were no moral grays. Here we have this slender youth, all pale and frail, dissecting his seeming tormentor as impartially as a medical student studies a cadaver. Taking stock of everything Phil lets slip, chooses to reveal, Pete might have found a new lab rat to experiment on. He never drops his mask of innocence, permitting him to psychosexually dismember his mother’s persecutor, like Hannibal Lecter, while Phil is still trying to size him up.
With Peter having given him a glimpse that there’s more ways of being a man than the rocky and unforgiving road Phil’s followed all his life, showing how their kind can adapt to emerging civilization, rather than being phased out with the closing of the frontier, this ending affords Phil his sole concession to modern progress, as he heads off to his final destination, traveling to town in a Model-T no less, attired in black tie and bowler. The first and only time we’ve seen him out of his weathered denim, this suggests Phil’s new willingness to move beyond that primitive Western past he’d been so doggedly mired in. So, it seems a tad cruel to find the future still closed off. He’s fated to fade and wither with the past, rebuffed from entering this fabled promised land that won’t have him, like a host body rejecting a failed transplant.
But the stark shifts in motivation prevent us from getting any firm handle on the slippery Peter character. Leading audiences on a merry chase the entire time, is Peter lying when he tells Phil “I wanted to be like you.” We’re also at a seeming loss as to where his sudden, Poe-like taxidermy obsession emerged from, when the doctors’ Hippocratic Oath sets forth that one first do no harm. When the seemingly sensitive Peter catches a rabbit apparently for a pet, for example, we expect it will be Phil who will skin it, Fatal Attraction-style. So, what actually becomes of the little varmint is enough to give one pause concerning our own misperceptions. Just as it will Phil later, out on the mountain trail, as he plays a childhood game concerning how many poles could be pulled out of a log pile, before spooking the animals beneath into making a run for it.
While Phil dismisses Peter as an overly sensitive weakling, ironically, Peter’s real father, as he relates, worried he wasn’t kind enough, that he was too strong, and missing some intrinsic sense of empathy for other people. And we come to find out why, as his cool and coiled inner springs become more and more apparent. In order for The Power of the Dog’s ending to work, audiences must be willing to buy into the tricky, shifting emotional tones of Smit-McPhee’s character. And the young actor still seems a bit green for all that pressure to be left on his shoulders.
Consequently, I’m just not sure the movie proved persuasive enough for me to follow along all the way with it. The ending will likely perplex many viewers, the way Paul Thomas Anderson’s equally toxic Phantom Thread did. Whether you’ll find it a letdown or not will be up to the individual viewer, given it turns out to be something far different from what audiences are led to believe going in. The Power of the Dog, despite its lingering air of terminal melancholy, is less mysterious than it believes itself to be, and hence less haunting than we’d like, since everything is pretty much spelled out for us. It’s the sort of movie that leaves one with the sense that there will be something more to it, even when there isn’t really anything left to say. I’m personally still unresolved about it, but for different reasons.
Like the Western genre itself, The Power of the Dog feels very conservative in all the wrong ways. By plugging her story into the Western’s larger mythos, concerning the civilized and the savage, as embodied by the yin and yang of these male and female opposites, Campion dredges up discomforting associations she fails to address, or even acknowledge. Layering her themes atop one another, she tries to draw a specious connection between homosexuality and the Western genre’s existing tenets and motifs that doesn’t fully line up, when pared down to its most basic tenets. There’s a dubious conflation between being gay and being misogynistic, the way those concepts are correlated in the Phil character here, as if that were the wellspring of toxic masculinity, the all-male gay fantasy world representing the penultimate exclusion of the female sex from the social paradigm. Whether intentional or not, The Power of the Dog plays directly into hoary old heterosexist beliefs that gay men hate women.
In the real world, we routinely find the most intolerant displays of toxic masculinity cropping up on the homophobic, anti-trans political right. But by manifesting those traits instead in Phil, The Power of the Dog somehow manages to lay blame for historic misogyny squarely in the lap of closeted gay men. And it’s of little matter that in Campion’s context, Phil is meant to be excused for despising women because the only significant female character in the film, Rose, is meant to be symbolic harbinger of the coming civilization that threatens him. It’s almost made to seem as if it were Phil’s strict adherence to the ‘masculine’ virtues that precluded contact with women, even for purposes of intimacy, for fear of being feminized. As if heterosexual congress would somehow weaken and sully the purity of his manhood. The way the relationship between Phil and Peter is presented, it can easily be slated among Hollywood’s long, woeful line of negative, self-destructive and predatory representations of gay affairs. Which would seem to suggest a step backward, into the viewpoint of the times in which the book was written, when the subject of a love that dared not speak its name was generally treated on screen with a tragic, fatalistic air. Married to a woman his entire adult life, who was accepting of his sexuality, author Savage remained socially closeted at the time the book was written, and the sense of psychosexual claustrophobia he invested the character of Phil with is palpable. Which may further explain why the story feels to be set in the 19th century, rather than the 20th. Again, The Power of the Dog depicts male sexual attraction between generations in predatory terms, with Phil correlated with ravening, wild canids, while Peter, with his bovine lashes and quavering cowlick queries, “Do many of the calves die from wolves?”
A hysterical Rose behaves as if she feared Phil were targeting her boy with wicked intentions as she watches them mosey down that dusty trail together, which may be why Phil’s hand becomes maimed with that unsutured wound, judgment on him for not keeping them to himself. And if one is being honest, the ending proves the clincher, with Phil instantly contracting a terminal blood disease upon sexually transgressing (this is implied), dying the very next day, his passing attended by biblical abnegations read as passages from the Good Book. And beyond simply burying your gays, Phil’s convenient elimination at story’s end removes the immediate threat he poses to George and Rose’s heterosexual happiness.
So, in The Power of the Dog, gays are being consecrated to blooding the keel, presiding over the nuptials of the emergent nuclear family, the future foundation of the country. This really couldn’t be any more insulting. Moreover, since Rose is depicted as lacking the agency to save herself from the situation, both gay men here are defined solely by their relation to this woman in their life. To Phil, she’s Eve the destroyer. To Pete, Mary the divine mother, the movie reducing her to the archetypal extremes women on film have traditionally been subjected to.
Though the gays are supposed to be depicted more humanely and sympathetically, it’s the homosexual element here which provides the film its sense of sexual menace. The same way it used to in old cautionary films warning about ‘the third gender,’ back in the ‘50s when homosexuality was stigmatized as posing an existential threat to traditional family values. Of course, additional layers of meaning and nuance are interwoven into this barebones outline. But it’s easy to find The Power of the Dog’s perspective problematic, given all the mystifying cross-purposes embedded in the material, provoking legitimate criticisms that I think are perfectly valid. It’s not just that there’s a complicated mix of emotions here. It’s that the viewpoint is muddy. Hence, at day’s end, The Power of the Dog seems as deeply conflicted and unresolved as the Phil character.
Like Campion’s competing ‘Virgin and the Whore’ view of Rose, linking homosexuality to the savage, primitive Western past through Phil, then showing us, in the form of Peter, the more ‘artistic’ and ‘sensitive’ side that would emerge with the coming of civilization, the movie is really giving us a limited choice between the brutishly hulking, woman-hating homosexual of male supremacist fantasy, and the limp wristed sissy weakling so dear to heterosexual stereotype, as if that were an either or ultimatum, when neither option seems very preferable. In playing with the extremes of the masculine spectrum, The Power of the Dog pretends as if these were the only two types of gay folks to choose from.
Pete is meant to herald the emergence of a new day for homosexuals who, in this brave new century, one supposes, are now to be linked to intellectually superior, emotionally apathetic serial killers, after the mold of Leopold and Loeb. I doubt many in the LGBTQ+ community would consider him any less disturbed than Phil. Or any more preferable, in regards to representation, than Campion’s literary construct concerning savage man and a primitive gay past that most assuredly never was, though it feels flattering as f*ck. The director is perpetuating one gay stereotype, while purportedly laying to rest another. Without the slightest sense of irony, Campion posits her mama’s boy with his fixation for taxidermy as the future of the species, entirely oblivious that she’s helping to reinforce the same harmful stereotype that would eventually metastasize into Norman Bates.