“The Power of the Dog”: Movie for Pride Month

If you haven’t yet seen The Power of the Dog (2021), a period-piece Western set in Montana in 1925 that features an intriguing but not-so-informative title and a large dose of toxic masculinity, perhaps you’d be interested to know there’s a queer theme?

For Pride Month’s sake, consider seeing it. The high critical praise (94% on Rotten Tomatoes) is well-earned. If you have already seen it, consider, as I have, seeing it again. Kristy Puchco, Mashable: “…(I)t’s even better the second time around.”

Jane Campion both wrote the script and directed The Power of the Dog. Puchco sets up the plot:

[Benedict] Cumberbatch stars as Phil Burbank, a surly rancher who shares a house, business, and life with his timid brother George (Jesse Plemons), who he has nicknamed ‘Fatso.’ As you might guess, Phil is casual in his cruelty, which is plainly displayed when a cattle drive through 1925 Montana brings the brothers into the inn of fragile ‘suicide widow’ Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst). There, the snarking cowpoke is quick to mock her son Peter (Kodi Smith-McPhee) for perceived softness, spitting slurs and harshly mimicking of the boy’s lisp…

George winds up marrying Rose. Phil, unhappy about her and Peter’s presence at the ranch, makes Rose’s adjustment particularly difficult. For this and other reasons, Rose increasingly can’t stay away from alcohol.

You can watch the trailer below:

As Beth Marchant, Los Angeles Times, states, “…[It’s] less a sweeping paean to the Old West than it is a taut and terrifying psychological meditation on secrets, repression and misdirected rage.” Rather than spoil this intricate movie’s various ensuing threads, here are a few additional snippets from selected critics:

Alissa Wilkinson, Vox: “Some movies announce their intentions from the start, and some sneak up on you. The Power of the Dog is the latter. Its rough-hewn, side-glancing characters are full of secrets and unspoken intentions, thinking thoughts it didn’t even occur to you to imagine are in their heads.”

Leah Greenblatt, ew.com: “Unless you’re one of the few who’s read Thomas Savage’s 1967 book of the same name on which the script is based, there’s rarely a moment that doesn’t feel racked with the queasy, thrilling promise of sudden violence or epiphany. Pinning down the cumulative effect of Campion’s slow-drip storytelling is trickier, except to say that being submerged in her ineffable world feels not just like two hours in the dark, but high art.”

Sandra Cohen, PhD, Medium, notes that The Power of the Dog “has much to say about that old adage: what we hate in others is what we can’t accept in ourselves. And, wow, does the character of Phil Burbank spell that axiom out in spades.”

Kathleen Sachs, Chicago Reader: “The film seems…like a menagerie of oblique character studies, each of the adult leads an animal in his or her own cage. For all his salt-of-the-earth machismo, Phil actually has more in common with Peter than he lets on, having been classically educated and thus apparently quite intelligent. Peter aspires to be a doctor like his late father, but, unlike Phil, he opts for the rigor of study to the hardscrabbles of manual labor. Both may or may not share a certain inborn quality that at the time and in that place was decidedly taboo.”

Shannon Keating, BuzzFeed: “It’s a slow build, and for most of the time, I had no idea where this was all heading — which only made its shocking but well-earned ending all the more gratifying.”

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