Film & TV

Old West, Tired Idea

Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons in The Power of the Dog. (Kristy Griffin/Netflix)
The Power of the Dog’s cinematic secret has about the same level of mystique as a game of peekaboo.

The Western drama The Power of the Dog, which just debuted at the New York Film Festival ahead of a December release on Netflix, is one of those Oscar (™) brand movies that left other critics throwing their hats in the air as though a Saturday night hoedown had just been announced in River City. The movie left me wholly unimpressed. But to tell you why I don’t rate it very highly, I’ll have to give away its big secret. Spoilers follow but . . . not really. The movie’s secret has about the same level of mystique as a game of peekaboo.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons play perpetually-at-odds brothers who are getting rich on ranching in 1925 Montana. Meanwhile, a young widow named Rose (Kirsten Dunst) who runs a restaurant is raising an awkward and effeminate teen boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee) whose habit of making, say, delicate paper-flower arrangements marks him out as a figure of fun among the cowboys who dine at the restaurant where he waits tables. Phil (Cumberbatch) is the roughest, meanest, orneriest old cuss since Yosemite Sam, and he mercilessly mocks the boy as his mama Rose blanches and frets. It’s a relief to report that, as his brother George, Plemons isn’t playing a weirdo or a psychotic this time. George, taking a shine to the widow, tries to steer Phil away from bullying the kid, then slinks off and marries Rose behind Phil’s back, which makes him even meaner. Cumberbatch, by the way, is having the time of his life, playing this filth-encrusted he-man to the hilt. It’s a solidly convincing performance. You’d never guess that if you scraped away the grime you’d find a graduate of the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art underneath.

All of the above is extremely slow to develop, which is one reason why this is an Oscar (™) movie: unnecessary ponderousness, dressed up with lots of period detail. Oscar voters often confuse failing to get to the point with importance, especially if the movie looks pretty. Remember Mank? Ten Oscar nominations. As Mank was, this movie is being released by Netflix, which each year spends roughly enough money to feed Africa on ad campaigns to bombard Oscar voters with reminders to vote for their films. Also it was written and directed by a woman, New Zealand’s Jane Campion (still best known for her miserable 1993 Oscar winner The Piano), which will earn the movie lots of points from the sorts of people who think awards should be handed out based as much on identity politics as on merit. (Her script is based on the novel by Thomas Savage.) But the main reason it’s an Oscar movie is that Cumberbatch’s Phil is so in-your-face about being macho, angry, sweaty, aggressive, virile, hostile, rugged, and stupendously butch in all ways that he is, of course, gay. That’s the whole movie. He’s gay. It’s supposed to take you an hour and a half or so to figure this out, but I’m betting you’ll figure it out long before that, because you’re not dumb. I was about 20 minutes in when I wrote, “gay?” in my notebook.

Why is Phil so cruel to the effeminate, slender young man? Because he’s repressing his homosexual desires. Why is Phil so alienated from polite society? Because he hates himself for being gay. In the second half of the movie, Phil starts being nice to the teen, and it turns out it’s because he’s allowing some of the homosexuality out, but only for a trot, not a full gallop. When no one’s looking he goes off to gaze at a funny 1925 predecessor to gay porn, which is a “health” magazine celebrating musculature of the barely clothed male form.

Things head for a dramatic conclusion that’s supposed to fill you with sorrow but filled me with yawns. I couldn’t be bothered to care about such transparently schematic characters. The movie takes 130 plodding minutes to pass along a gay-liberation message that is pretty much the least-controversial idea you could possibly present to a Hollywood awards-granting body. Were there repressed gay cowboys in 1925? I’m sure there were. But “What if there was a gay cowboy” isn’t enough of an idea to constitute a movie, not after all of the films we’ve already seen (American Beauty, Moonlight, Call Me By Your Name, Cumberbatch’s own The Imitation Game, etc.) that were supposed to wow us by reminding us that repressed homosexuality exists. The more Hollywood tells itself it has come up with “bold, urgent filmmaking” the more likely it is to simply be recycling a favored cliché.

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