The Power of the Dog (2021) may not seem like a typical Jane Campion film. Campion is a feminist filmmaker whose films and television shows center on strong women who refuse, resist, and rework the dominant patriarchal order. Such feminist protagonists include Alexia Keogh’s and Kerry Fox’s Janet in An Angel at My Table (1990), Nicole Kidman’s Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady (1996), Kate Winslet’s Ruth in Holy Smoke! (1999), Meg Ryan’s Frannie Avery in In the Cut (2003), Elisabeth Moss’s Robin Griffin in Top of the Lake (2013), and perhaps most famously, Holly Hunter’s Ada McGrath in The Piano (1993).
The Power of the Dog features three male actors and one female actor. Knowing this is a Campion film—her first in 12 years—it makes sense for audiences to assume that the lone female lead, Kirsten Dunst’s Rose Gordon, would become the narrative focus. However, such narrative expectations are thwarted in Campion’s latest masterpiece.
Rose Gordon is a widow, single mother, and owner of a struggling inn in 1925 Montana. Rose works non-stop running and maintaining the inn: she prepares all meals, entertains guests, and constantly cleans everything from floors to dishes to linens. This is a job that doesn’t end, consuming all hours of the day and night.
We expect a female character in a Campion film to eventually become the protagonist who works towards forging a post-patriarchal world. But in The Power of the Dog, such is not the case.
Throughout, Rose remains a victim of circumstances. More specifically, she remains a victim of patriarchy’s cruelty. In a world established, monitored, and patrolled by men, Rose withers. This is not to critique Rose for failing to be more assertive and proactive, but rather, to recognize the power of men. Rose is a fighter. She creatively struggles and perseveres. But the power of men proves the most powerful force shaping social relations.
The Power of the Dog initially appears as a chamber piece with four key players: Rose, her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and two wealthy ranching brothers: Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons). These four characters—all layered, all complex—shift in dynamics and power as the story unfolds. All four perform and test the possibilities of their gendered identities as the West is in the early stages of becoming fully settled, industrialized, and incorporated into both a national and global market economy.
In many ways, the film is a chamber piece, and its narrative gravity is Phil Burbank, a character who embodies toxic masculinity. Phil is cruel, misogynist, homophobic, and throughout, audiences anxiously await for his verbal violence to erupt into more destructive forms of violence. One of the power dynamics that play out over the course of the film is Phil’s constant taunting, humiliation, and degradation of Rose and her son.
The Power of the Dog is about toxic masculinity, a trope that becomes literalized when Phil dies of poisoning. As the film dramatizes, toxic masculinity poisons everything, including, eventually, its host. The perpetrators of toxic masculinity become, in time, its victims.
The dramatic conflict is set in motion when Phil and George stop at Rose’s inn after a long day leading a cattle drive. At the inn, they meet Rose and her son Peter, who is conspicuously troped as queer. Initially, Peter appears diametrically opposed to Phil. Phil and his fellow ranchers perform an aggressive, boisterous, and violent form of masculinity; Peter, in contrast, is lanky, has a lisp, and when we first meet him, he assembles delicate paper flowers as decorations for the inn’s dining tables. If masculinity is a performance, Peter wouldn’t make it past the initial audition.
As the film foregrounds, masculinity is a continual performance of cruelty towards all women and towards all men who fail to properly perform and demonstrate masculinity. Within moments of seeing Peter, Phil mocks his mannerisms, his lisp, his art, his very being. Phil has a masculine talent for recognizing other people’s vulnerabilities and exploiting these to maximize humiliation. Phil, for example, does not call his brother by his proper name, but rather, calls him “Fatso”. Phil finds what the dominant patriarchal order deems a mark of failure and discursively brings such to the forefront.
Phil’s verbal branding of his brother as “Fatso” is both a form of conspicuous humiliation and constant reinforcement that George fails to properly perform masculinity. Such cruelty, The Power of the Dog dramatizes, extends to all beings, both animate and inanimate, from furniture to animals to human beings. Masculinity is a performance of cruelty, it’s a toxicity that spreads and saturates everything.
Yet the story seems to offer an alternative to toxic masculinity in the figure of George. George refuses to participate and perform in the violent circus of masculinity being led by his brother. Instead, he becomes smitten by Rose. After their initial encounter, George returns to the inn and enters the kitchen to aid Rose in preparing and serving the food. The kitchen, of course, is a space and form of labor troped as feminine. Moreover, in serving the food and beverages, George places a napkin over his arm, a gesture that Phil earlier taunts as queer. This courtship—performed through kindness, respect, and help—eventually leads to George proposing and wedding Rose, and in the process, becoming a father to Peter.
George is set up to be an alternative figure of masculinity—a kind, benevolent variety.
But something unexpected happens. In the film’s final hour, George largely vanishes. How do we make sense of this conspicuous absence? If indeed George is an alternative model of masculinity, why does he become narratively marginal? Why does this progressive model of masculinity become absent?
I want to suggest that this narrative absence signals an important concept: there are no alternative masculinities. The conceptual power of Campion’s film is that it questions whether “toxic” is a necessary modifier of “masculinity”. The phrase “toxic masculinity” assumes the existence of alternative masculinities.
Initially, The Power of the Dog seems to offer a competing model of masculinity in the figure of George. Phil relishes his muscular form, being dirty, hurting animals, and performing cruelty to all women and to all boys and men who fail to successfully perform “masculinity”. In contrast, George is pudgy, clean, coifed, and monied in his fashion and presentation. In terms of class, George embraces his owning-class identity, while Phil embraces the identity of a ranch hand. Phil and George offer competing forms of masculinity and competing forms of class positions.
However, read in terms of economics, both Phil and George come from wealth, living on an expansive ranch in an enormous home replete with signifiers of wealth. As the film suggests, class can be just as much a performance as gender. Phil identifies as a ranch hand, but he has access to the mansion whereas his fellow workers do not. Even if Phil mocks it, he can go home and take advantage of its wealth—including indoor plumbing—whenever he wants.
The dichotomy between Phil and George proves a false framing. In terms of gender, Phil wasn’t born a figure of masculinity; he learned to become one. In fact, The Power of the Dog is strewn with evidence that Phil, when he was younger, was similar to Peter, Rose’s son who is conspicuously coded as queer. Phil, we learn, was Phi Beta Kappa at Yale, where he studied the classics. Phil, in other words, used to be bookish and artistic. The Phil we see on screen is not the same Phil that chose to go to Yale to study the humanities, a capacious field that recognizes and celebrates the contingency and radical possibilities of the human.
Masculinity must be learned. The film’s most conspicuous teacher of masculinity is Bronco Henry—a figure who is never present on screen, yet whose presence is palpable throughout.
Bronco Henry taught Phil how to be a “man”, how to be “masculine”. Bronco Henry is a symbol of how masculinity is an institution that has to be learned, performed, and perpetuated. Bronco Henry is the symbolic institution that turns “failed” men such as Peter into “real” men such as present-day Phil.
But Campion deconstructs and queers the institution of masculinity. As we learn, Bronco Henry was not a father figure to Phil. Rather, he was Phil’s lover, and perhaps, George’s as well. Indeed, invisible queer relationships and intimacies that aren’t allowed to be performed, that aren’t allowed to be public, haunt this film.
The secret of The Power of the Dog‘s importance, in large part, is its structure. Initially, it may seem to be a chamber piece between Phil and George as contrasting masculinities. However, as noted above, George conspicuously vanishes from the story. This absence should be read as an important insight: There are no competing masculinities. Rather, masculinity is a form of violence, analogous in form to Whiteness.
Masculinity, like Whiteness, is a hierarchical structure predicated on dominance. Identification with and performance of masculinity, like Whiteness, necessitates an ideological Other posited as constitutively inferior, an Other who must be continually degraded, demeaned, and violated. Whiteness requires people of color to be subordinate, inferior, and subject to constant violence; Masculinity requires women and queers to be subordinate, inferior, and subject to constant violence.
Ultimately, there are no alternative forms of masculinities, just as there are no alternative forms of Whiteness. Both are structures that must be dis-identified with and dismantled. The Power of the Dog recognizes such and in this recognition, becomes Campion’s most feminist film to date.