THE POWER OF THE DOG: award-winner or homophobic?
THE POWER OF THE DOG rides a wave of Oscar expectations and rave reviews. But will it join the ranks of classic westerns or be a beautiful film which in short order may seem out of step with its audience.
There is no doubt that master director Jane Campion has crafted a beautiful world, creating the American West in the 1920s in New Zealand. It reeks of manly cowboys who treat their women like they treat their animals. The only exception is one very unusual teen. The visuals are stunning, the original songs by Jonny Greenwood are brilliant, and the film in every frame announces that it is award worthy.
Two brothers rule this world. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Phil, a bitter man who will not let the world see his grief for his lost love. Kind George (Jesse Plemons), is belittled by Phil, even though George is clearly the brains behind the operation. When George marries Rose, (Kirsten Dunst) a widow with a teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the drama ignites.
Are the shades of STREETCAR deliberate, as Phil torments the new bride? Scenes of the bare-chested cowboys riding, and skinny dipping raise the prospect of sexual violence and rampant carnality. Cumberbatch’s performance keeps the danger - exception for one awful scene - just below the boiling point. Campion never takes the easy way out.
It is the treatment of the lad which I find unsettling. Styled in some sort of mash between Alan Bates and Peewee Herman, Peter is stoically majestic as his meticulously hand-crafted artwork is burned, and he completely ignores the calls of ‘nancy’ (and other gay slurs) when he walks through the ranch or falls off his horse. (No spoiler alerts here, as all of that is a part of the trailer.)
I have read some comments online that the homophobic behavior of the ranchers should be excused because it is set in the 1920s. But this movie could be set today, as art projects by queer kids are still smashed and burned, and nonbinary people from all the queer communities are ridiculed – or worse – as they try to live their lives. I did not see the movie in a theater, but if I did, and the entire audience laughed when the lad falls of his horse, I would be steaming.
So that is the dilemma of THE DOG. A work of great beauty, with unsettling themes? Or both?