The Thesis of ‘The Power of the Dog’ Is Proven by Sam Elliott’s Comments

Jane Campion’s Oscar-nominated film The Power of the Dog is about how the Western genre is roped up in the trappings of toxic masculinity. Actor Sam Elliott decided to prove Campion’s thesis by going on an extended, confused homophobic rant about her movie.

On the WTF With Marc Maron podcast, Elliott, a legendary Western actor, lambasted The Power of the Dog for its gay themes. The cowboys in the film he said, looked like Chippendales dancers “all running around in chaps and no shirt,” and complained that “There’s all these allusions to homosexuality throughout the f*cking movie.”

Elliott then criticized Campion, asking “What the f*ck does this woman from down there in New Zealand know about the American West?” He finished up by saying that he’d just been down to Texas and stayed with families involved in ranching—“Not men, but families!” he emphasized. “Where are we in the world today?” he asked. Because a movie about gay cowboys is apparently a sign of the decline of civilization.

Elliott expresses particular loathing for the main character, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) who he says is never shown riding a horse (spoiler: he spends a lot of screen time on a horse.) This is amusing because Elliott, rather helplessly, sounds almost exactly like Phil.

Phil, like Elliott, buys into a manly, mythical, reactionary, conservative vision of cowboys and the West. Phil (like Elliott) sees himself as the preserver and protector of a true Western spirit. He often talks about how men back in the old days (before 1925) were tougher and more real (ie, in Elliott’s vernacular, they were not women, and didn’t come from New Zealand.)

Phil also (like Elliot) openly abuses people who he thinks are betraying the true spirit of the West and of manliness. He bullies a thin boy named Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), calling him “Miss Nancy” because he makes paper flowers and has a lisp. It’s easy to imagine that Phil, like Elliott, would lambast a movie about homosexual cowboys. If you could imagine Phil watching a Western. More likely, he’d mock anyone who attended a picture show to see deep-voiced poseurs like Elliott pretend to be cowboys.

If Elliott is a poseur, though, Phil is as well, at least in the sense that he’s hiding part of himself. Phil is gay and deeply in the closet. He still carries a torch for his cowboy mentor, Bronco Henry, who died some years before the film begins.

Phil is an insufferable bully obsessed with performing masculine toughness—he won’t bathe for dinner; he won’t wear gloves while castrating cattle. Is that because he is trying to prove himself, and let everyone know he’s a man despite being gay? Or is his hyper-masculinity an expression of his love for Henry, and an identity that he’s secretly created around a guilty, unspeakable male-male bond?

Either way, Power of the Dog shows how a jealous, angry masculinity defines itself through exclusions, abuse, and self-denial. It’s not hard to see how this applies to Elliott himself, a man who has played at being a cowboy his entire career, and who now sets himself up as an arbiter of true, authentic, masculine cowboyness.

When Elliott sneers at Campion for not knowing anything about the American west, he could just as easily be sneering at himself. The anecdote he tells about visiting good, wholesome, heterosexual families in Texas is a ludicrous bid for authenticity from a man desperately scrambling for authority. I’m a real cowboy! I know cowboys! I have a deep voice! I curse! I’m tough!

Elliott isn’t who he says he is. But the point of The Power of the Dog is that men are never who they say they are—at least not if they say that they’re the authoritative tough authentic patriarch. That Western myth embodied in Clint Eastwood play-acting as a cowboy while riding around Italy is a fantasy. It doesn’t exist. Elliott on the podcast demands “Where’s the Western in this Western?” But of course, that’s the point. The Western isn’t.  It’s a pretense, like filming New Zealand and calling it Montana.

Phil makes the lives of those closest to him a misery, and his own end is horrible and humiliating. Elliott’s podcast comments hopefully won’t have such dire results, though adding to ambient homophobia and misogyny is never great. Maybe, though, Sam Elliott making a fool of himself will get a few more people to watch a film about how our Western myths of manliness are foolish, and not infrequently worse than foolish.

The Power of the Dog is streaming on Netflix. 

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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.

Image Credit: Netflix. 

Noah Berlatsky is a freelance writer based in Chicago. His book, Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics was published by Rutgers University Press. He thinks the Adam West Batman is the best Batman, darn it.