Happily Ever After? As Peter gets closer to Phil he starts to teach him that being a man doesn’t have to involve being sexist, homophobic, racist, and aggressive. Indeed, a man can be camp, bad at tennis, sensitive, well-dressed and into dissection. Phil realises he is full of repression, anger, trauma and prejudice, and that he’s been taking these things out on the people around him. He finally sees the error of his ways and starts apologising to Rose, George, the local Native Americans, and everyone else he has treated awfully. He becomes close, platonic friends with Peter, and it all ends well…ha, does it bullshit.
Homophobic Plot Twist: as Peter gets closer to Phil it’s hard to tell the nature of the affection the older guy has for the teenager. It could be platonic and paternal but the film is so rife with gay tropes it’s hard not to read more into this, especially as the trailer queerbaits with the (very brief) moment when Phil rubs Peter’s neck. “Look, GAY SUBTEXT,” screams the film but that’s it as far as gay intimacy goes (not forgetting the sweaty handkerchief). As for what Peter feels, he gets a little flirty and seductive, holding a cigarette to Phil’s lips and asking suggestive questions about Bronco Henry. And then what? They fall in love? Nope, Peter kills Phil. Yup, the creepy twink murders the old, repressed gay dude. An earlier scene in the film showed Peter snapping on some Marigolds (lol) and dissecting a dead cow (yuk). Later Phil shows Peter how to make rope out of dried cow hide but he doesn’t have enough. Annoyingly, Rose had given all the excess hides away to the pesky “Indians” but luckily Peter has some he prepared earlier. We watch as Phil places the strips of hide into a tub of water to dampen them. Phil has a cut on his hand and his blood mixes with the water. Peter watches intently, knowing full well the dead cow he skinned died of anthrax. So, for Phil, what is a moment of manly, possibly romantic, bonding is, for Peter, the perfect time to commit murder. It’s not long before Phil is in a coffin. Take that you repressed queer!
“For what kind of man would I be if I didn’t help my mother, if I didn’t save her?”
Peter asks himself this question right at the start of the film and it’s clear that Jane Campion was interested in exploring masculinity. Yet having the more effeminate queer guy kill the more masculine one isn’t a poignant insight into the male condition, it’s just another example of the awful treatment and characterisation of gay men in film.
Straight Love Good: the closing scene sees Peter tucking the rope (aka murder weapon) under his bed (wearing gloves, of course) and going over to his window. Outside he sees George and Rose getting back from Phil’s funeral. They kiss and Peter smirks because what does any queer son love more than murdering his mother’s bully so she can continue her happy, heterosexual marriage. What’s more, it’s not just straight marriage that gets a big tick, it’s also the straight, nuclear family, as George chooses Phil’s funeral as the prime time to invite their parents for Christmas. They happily accept because, thank God, their awful gay son has finally been murdered by an evil twink. It’s also not clear why George does so little to stop his brother abusing Rose, leaving it all up to Peter instead. I mean, if a gay guy has to get murdered could it at least be at the hands of his straight brother, rather than the only other queer character. I’d also settle for Rose shooting Phil, he really does treat her awfully.
I 100% did not need this film. I’ve seen enough homophobic tropes to last a lifetime. Brokeback Mountain (spoilers!) was a super depressing gay love story in which two cowboys did actually fall in love but one gets beaten to death (by straight people) and the other lives on unhappily. That film has the excuse of being 16 years old. Not to mention that The Power of the Dog, the book, was published in 1967 (no one needed this adapted into a film over fifty years later). There are a zillion films out there that celebrate straight love – in which the straight couple don’t die/get murdered and get to stay in love. But there are not a zillion films that celebrate queer love, quite the opposite. The balance needs to be redressed.
The Power of the Dog is a brilliant film for many reasons – acting, cinematography, directing, setting, writing, music – but it’s the story that is the problem. It adds to the long history of the homophobic portrayal of gay men in film. In trying to say “hey, masculinity has nuances” it actually said “gays are bad”. The stories we tell have consequences. Bad stories will have bad consequences and I, for one, am exhausted and deeply disheartened by the amount of bad LGBTQ+ stories being told and, more often than not, by straight people. The Power of The Dog should really be called The Power of the Trope and, boy, those tropes are even tougher to kill than a repressed, gay cowboy.