The Power of the Dog tells the story of the world’s biggest dickhead, aka Phil Burbank, played very convincingly by Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s 1925 and he lives on a cattle ranch in rural Alabama – think wide open planes, topless cowboys sewing hides and lots of castrating bulls. He has a brother, George (Jess Plemons), who marries a widow named Rose (Kirsten Dunst, who is actually married to Plemons!). Rose has a teenage son called Peter (Kodi Smitt-McPhee) who likes nothing more than making flowers out of newspapers and dissecting rabbits. Let’s just say that when Phil first encounters Rose and Peter, he sets one of the newspaper flowers alight and lights his cigarette on it. Yup, things are going to go from bad to worse…and they really do.
Phil Is A Dickhead: the whole film rests upon this premise. He bullies and body shames George, regularly calling him “fatso”. He’s racist, preferring to burn surplus hides rather than sell them to the “Indians”, i.e. the Native Americans who also live on the land. He bullies Peter, calling him “Miss Nancy” and ridiculing him for being an effeminate sissy. Worst of all is his deeply misogynistic hatred of Rose. His bullying of her is slow and purposeful. He mocks and humiliates her, and drives her to alcoholism. Phil is a walking example of toxic masculinity, who loves his leather chaps as much as he does castrating bulls with his bare hands, yee-haw! He also loves being sexist, fatphobic, homophobic and racist. Altogether now, Phil is a dickhead!
But why is Phil so awful? Could it be the other cowboys? Well, they do like homophobically bullying Peter and clearly revel in the masculine ideals of being strong and awful, but Phil’s the boss, and isn’t close to them. Could it be his parents? They do appear briefly in the film but there’s no exploration of how they contributed to Phil’s personality. What about George? He’s so nice it’s impossible to imagine him teaching Phil how to be awful. It’s clear that Phil depends on George to the point of co-dependent dysfunction, which further explains his hatred of Rose, but that still doesn’t tell us why he’s such a bad guy. Then half way through the film we find out Phil’s secret…he’s gay!
Evil Gay: surprise, he fancies men! He’s got a secret stash of photos of hot dudes hidden in a tree trunk and he likes watching the other cowboys swim around naked. He doesn’t join in, presumably because he’d enjoy it too much. He also has a giant, dirty handkerchief with the initials BH on. Phil loves nothing better than sneaking off to the woods, taking out the handkerchief, putting it down his pants, then rubbing it over his face. I’m 100% not here to kink shame and this scene was played so earnestly but, boy, did I laugh. So it turns out Phil is a repressed gay, he’s also incredibly evil, which makes him an Evil Gay – a trope familiar to us LGBTQ+ folks, just watch a Disney film! And there’s nothing an Evil Gay likes more than ruining straight people’s lives, which is precisely what Phil does throughout the film. Now, there is a nuanced point to make here – namely how patriarchy and toxic masculinity oppresses same sex desire between men and how that oppression has awful consequences. But we’re never shown how Phil has been oppressed. As I said earlier, there’s no effort to explore why Phil is awful, we don’t even find out if his parents were homophobic or not – a huge contributor to the shaping of a queer person’s psyche. Phil is just evil and gay, simples. But this is lazy storytelling which rests heavily on decades of homophobic tropes.
Lazy History: now, someone could say that Phil isn’t gay because that word didn’t exist in the 1920s to describe love between men or the identity of a man who loves other men. The word homosexual wasn’t even invented until the 1860s and it certainly wasn’t an identity that one could claim with pride, it was a medical pathology, an illness. It’s also highly likely Phil might never have heard the word homosexual, it was far less common than it is today. This history is vital to understanding Phil as a man in the 1920s but the film doesn’t bother to explore it. It’s not like Phil’s time was one of joyous fluidity in which guys had access to words such as bi, gay, pan, heteroflexible, homoromantic, ace, etc. We have no idea how he relates to his own feelings and possible identity, but what we do know is that he’s horrible, repressed and gay. A further irony is that he’s the chief homophobe of the film. None of the significant straight characters, namely Rose, George and the parents, ever express homophobia. Rose is even extra caring for her ragingly gay son, how nice! So it’s left to nasty, gay Phil to be a homophobe too. To be fair to the film, I think with the character of Phil it was trying to say “toxic masculinity = bad” but what it actually says is “repressed gay men = the root of all evil”. Unsurprisingly, the chief object of Phil’s homophobia is Peter who turns out to be another grab bag of gay tropes. Tbc.