Film Review: The Power of the Dog (2021); Directed by Jane Campion

Film poster for Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog (2021)

Review

The Power of the Dog was Netflix’s latest and greatest (so far) attempt to secure an Oscar for Best Picture. It had to sting to lose to another streaming player, Apple TV+, which took home the gleaming statuette for crowd-favorite CODA. In addition to Best Picture, CODA also won in the categories of Best Adapted Screenplay (Sian Heder) and Best Supporting Actor (Troy Kotsur, who is now the first Deaf man to win an acting Oscar). For the longest time in the campaigns leading up to the big night, it was The Power of the Dog’s night to shine. With 12 nominations across the board, how could it lose? But it did. In fact, Netflix’s powerhouse Western only took home one statuette on Oscars night — for Best Director (Jane Campion).

But let us not judge a film by its accolades. The truth is, The Power of the Dog is an incredibly powerful yet extremely subtle film, its brilliance easily overlooked if one isn’t paying close enough attention.

The Power of the Dog is an incredibly powerful yet extremely subtle film, its brilliance easily overlooked if one isn’t paying close enough attention.

Jane Campion’s searing portrait of toxic masculinity and repressed sexuality, set against the backdrop of Montana in the 1920s, is in my opinion one of the greatest films of the 21st-century so far, though it’ll probably be years down the line before the majority of cinephiles agree with me. In it, Benedict Cumberbatch gives what is perhaps his most unsympathetic performance yet. It’s arguably his best. As Phil Burbank, Cumberbatch is ruthless, sardonic, and haunted. Campion, who made history at this year’s Oscars ceremony for being the first woman to be nominated for two directing Oscars (winning this year), is a master at creating atmosphere. The vast and wide-open spaces of Montana make for an interesting canvas upon which she paints her tale. Each character, from Cumberbatch’s Phil Burbank to Kirsten Dunst’s beleaguered Rose Gordon, is given more than enough room to explore their respective neuroses, their own private darknesses that spill over into their interactions with each other and with the land itself.

Each character, from Cumberbatch’s Phil Burbank to Kirsten Dunst’s beleaguered Rose Gordon, is given more than enough room to explore their respective neuroses, their own private darknesses…

What makes The Power of the Dog so interesting as a Western is its multilayered exploration of queerness. Now, if you ask any historian worth their salt, they’ll tell you there was all kinds of gay stuff going down in the American West. Put frankly, cowboys were riding each other just as often as they were riding broncos. If you ask a heterosexual purist, they’ll tell you John Wayne would never. And Wayne probably wouldn’t have. But John Wayne wasn’t a real cowboy. He was mostly a fiction. An idealized idol. A paean to hyper-masculinity. Cumberbatch isn’t a real cowboy, either, but his portrayal of one is more honest than Wayne’s ever was. Sorry Duke.

Put frankly, cowboys were riding each other just as often as they were riding broncos.

The central conflict at the heart of The Power of the Dog is between Phil and Rose’s son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). In fact, the opening lines of the film (spoken by Peter) speak to this conflict, which the viewer has not yet been made privy to: “For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?” What kind of man indeed?

When we meet Peter, though, he looks ill-equipped to protect or save anyone. Lanky and effeminate, his first scene in the film shows him making paper flowers for table settings that Phil will soon sneer at. Looking more closely, the paper flowers could very well be a metaphor for Phil’s repressed homosexuality, which is why he views them with such disdain. Where Peter is delicate and precise, Phil is callous and bombastic. Peter moves through the world like every step must be taken gently, as if the slightest deviation may trigger an explosion or perhaps expose him to the world. Phil, however, revels in his contempt for all of humanity, but most especially for Rose, who ends up marrying his brother George (Jesse Plemons).

Peter moves through the world like every step must be taken gently, as if the slightest deviation may trigger an explosion or perhaps expose him to the world.

This isn’t the first mainstream Western film to address themes of homosexuality. The last really good Western we had that did so was Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005). But while Brokeback was at its essence a love story, The Power of the Dog is a story of an unhappy family in fractures. Don’t expect the spirits of Jack and Ennis to manifest in Phil and Peter, because that’s not the kind of story Campion is telling. In fact, a viewer not used to looking for queer subtext may miss that element of the film entirely, so subtle is its execution. While Phil’s queerness is thickly-veiled under layers of ostentatious brutality, Peter’s is as wide-open and hyper-visible as the plains which serve as the backdrop to Campion’s film.

While Phil’s queerness is thickly-veiled under layers of ostentatious brutality, Peter’s is as wide-open and hyper-visible as the plains which serve as the backdrop to Campion’s film.

I’m not going to do the film a disservice by spoiling the ending and telling you what happens, but it’s definitely a wow moment. It’s also calculatingly understated, like most of the elements in the film. I love a good film that doesn’t make an exhibition of itself. I like hints and silences and ruminations. Not everything has to explode in order to burn.

The Power of the Dog is available to stream on Netflix.

Thanks as always for being a faithful reader of The Voracious Bibliophile. If you like what you see, please like, comment, follow, and subscribe to my email list to get notified of new posts as soon as they drop. You can also email me at fred.slusher@thevoraciousbibliophile.com or catch me on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest @voraciousbiblog. Keep reading the world, one page (or pixel) at a time.

Quote for the Day: March 14th, 2022

Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.

Lao Tzu

Thanks as always for being a faithful reader of The Voracious Bibliophile. If you like what you see, please like, comment, follow, and subscribe to my email list to get notified of new posts as soon as they drop. You can also email me at fred.slusher@thevoraciousbibliophile.com or catch me on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest @voraciousbiblog. Keep reading the world, one page (or pixel) at a time.

Quote for the Day: November 14th, 2021

In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they’re still beautiful.

Alice Walker

You know how sometimes you come across a quote or a line in a book while you’re reading or even hear a lyric in a song on the radio while you’re on your way to work and it’s like the stars align? You feel like the universe sent you those words because it knew you’d need them at that precise moment.

You feel like the universe sent you those words because it knew you’d need them at that precise moment.

Well, that’s how I felt when I first came across today’s quote. Lately, I’ve been feeling like a failure because I can’t be normal despite my best efforts. My therapist and I can’t quite find the right configuration of meds to make me not be a basket case all the time. None of my clothes fit and I’m continuing to gain weight despite all my work to curb that. The only clothes I have that fit me at the moment (aside from underwear and socks) are like three pairs of pants and my branded company shirts I wear to work.

It does, however, make me want to cry and scream and curse every time I go into my closet to try to find something to wear and find that clothes which were loose on me just six months ago are now so tight I can’t breathe in them.

Now, don’t misread me. I do not have a problem, aesthetically speaking, with being a fat person. I don’t think I’m disgusting and I’m not ashamed of the shape of my body. It does, however, make me want to cry and scream and curse every time I go into my closet to try to find something to wear and find that clothes which were loose on me just six months ago are now so tight I can’t breathe in them.

Now, I’ve not made a huge Facebook announcement coming out as gay or anything, but pretty much everyone that’s important to me knows.

Also, and I didn’t think I was going to say this here, but I’ve been really struggling with feeling like I’m accepted by certain members of my family. Now, I’ve not made a huge Facebook announcement coming out as gay or anything, but pretty much everyone that’s important to me knows. I’m out to all of my employees and I’m blessed to work for a company that’s extremely queer-friendly. All of my friends know and it’s probably been more than five years since I first came out to my parents.

Life doesn’t always allow us to be the most authentic version of ourselves with all people at all times.

But as Taylor Swift once sang in “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”, therein lies the issue. I never imagined being out in the first place so when I came out I wanted to be out out. Like drag show out. But here’s a hard truth: Life doesn’t always allow us to be the most authentic version of ourselves with all people at all times. So ever since I first came out to them I’ve been somewhat of a Hokey Pokey Homo: You put your right foot in (the closet), you put your right foot out (of the closet), you put your right foot (back) in (the closet, because you’re acting far too gay to be palatable to everyone), and you shake it all about (to “Just Dance” by Lady Gaga like the sad queer you are). I bought a purse a month or so ago that was super cute and it was on sale so why wouldn’t I buy it? and I thought my dad was going to have a stroke. To his credit, he didn’t say anything negative to me but I could still tell it made him uncomfortable.

That’s right, I’m contorted, bent in weird ways, and I’m still beautiful. And so are you. Make the world reckon with you on your terms.

So, if you’re still with me here: (A) depressed and anxious; (B) fat; and (C) super duper gay. And I’m going to add another one: (D) PERFECT. That’s right, I’m contorted, bent in weird ways, and I’m still beautiful. And so are you. Make the world reckon with you on your terms.

Thanks as always for being a faithful reader of The Voracious Bibliophile. If you like what you see, please like, comment, follow, and subscribe to my email list to get notified of new posts as soon as they drop. You can also email me at fred.slusher@thevoraciousbibliophile.com or catch me on Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Pinterest @voraciousbiblog. Keep reading the world, one page (or pixel) at a time.

All Aboard the ARC: Glass Syndrome by Eiko Ariki

***Note: I received a free digital review copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.***

Expected publication date: August 10th, 2021 by LOVE x LOVE

Review: Nijou is a Type A guy. He’s smart, popular, and athletic. As with a lot of Type A people, though, Nijou is a people-pleaser. He can’t say no in any context, especially when saying yes provides him with the kind of social capital he craves.

Toomi is the stereotypical boy from the wrong side of the tracks. He’s been missing a lot of school. His father has left him completely alone in the world, ostensibly due to some heavy gambling debts he’d rather avoid paying. To make ends meet, Toomi engages in survival sex work via his computer. He conceals his identity by presenting as female to paying clients.

A teacher concerned about Toomi’s welfare asks Nijou to check in on Toomi. Nijou does so because as we already know, he is incapable of saying no. We find out, however, that Nijou needs Toomi as much as Toomi needs him.

I won’t spoil the ending, but BL manga fans are sure to love Glass Syndrome. Even though the narrative was a bit muddled at times, overall it was an enjoyable read, and one I would recommend to my customers.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Glass Syndrome is now available to order.

Thanks as always for being a faithful reader of The Voracious Bibliophile. If you like what you see, please follow, like, comment, and subscribe to my email list to get notified of new posts as soon as they drop. You can also email me at thevoraciousbibliophile@yahoo.com or catch me on Twitter @voraciousbiblog. Keep reading the world, one page (or pixel) at a time.

From the Archives: Shameless: A Sexual Reformation by Nadia Bolz-Weber (Part 2)

Allow me to first offer my sincere apology to all of you, my devoted readers, for making you wait so long for Part 2. This part is going to be a lot different from the first one because I’ll be sharing and discussing my favorite passages from Nadia’s book. Are you ready for it? Let’s go.

God planted so many of us in the corners, yet the center-pivot irrigation of the church’s teachings about sex and sexuality tends to exclude us.

This is so life-affirming. For all #exvangelicals out there and for people who still have ties to the church, the feelings of exclusion that we experience in relation to our religious upbringings are so strong that they almost manifest in corporeal form whenever we’re exposed to the teachings inculcated in us from when we were congregants.

We were taught that the body is a site of shame. We were taught that we were tainted by Adam’s original sin, that our flesh is something we must overcome in order to become one with God. We were taught that sharing our bodies with others outside the confines of monogamous, heterosexual marriage separates us from the holy.

We were taught that sharing our bodies with others outside the confines of monogamous, heterosexual marriage separates us from the holy.

We were even condemned for finding pleasure(s) on our own. Masturbating was something we all discovered by accident, performed in secret, and never talked about. It was the secret sin that tainted our relationship with God, with our families, with ourselves. The rose is not branded an apostate when it blooms, so why then should we be branded? This is not even mentioning the shame accompanying your masturbatory fantasies if you were anything other than 100% straight.

The rose is not branded an apostate when it blooms, so why then should we be branded?

But our sexual and gender expressions are as integral to who we are as our religious upbringings are. To separate these aspects of ourselves—to separate life as a sexual being from a life with God—is to bifurcate our psyche, like a musical progression that never comes to resolution.

I love the imagery Bolz-Weber (I think from here on out I’m just going to refer to her as Pastor Nadia) uses here. So many of us who were raised in the church had to develop a dichotomy between our spiritual and corporeal identities, thus the bifurcation she’s talking about here. We were all musical progressions never coming to a resolution. If you ask me, we were robbed. That forced separation caused us to become less of ourselves, meaning that in the end we had less to offer God and less to give to others.

That forced separation caused us to become less of ourselves, meaning that in the end we had less to offer God and less to give to others.

What would we be like if this bifurcation had not caused us to tear ourselves asunder? What if instead we read the Scriptures with new eyes?

Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is within you, whom you have [received as a gift] from God, and that you are not your own [property]? You were bought with a price [you were actually purchased with the precious blood of Jesus and made His own]. So then, honor and glorify God with your body.

1 Corinthians 6:19-20 (AMP)

At what point did the church carnalize our bodies? When we are taken in totality, no bifurcation is necessary, and if we are to believe the Scriptures, our bodies house (contain) the Holy Spirit. Now, I am by no stretch of the imagination a Bible scholar or theologian, but there’s nothing wrong with my reading comprehension.

When we are taken in totality, no bifurcation is necessary, and if we are to believe the Scriptures, our bodies house (contain) the Holy Spirit.

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves. Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, ‘Where are you?’ He answered, ‘I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.’ And he said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?’

Genesis 3:6-11 (NIV)

Here we see that shame was a consequence of the first sin—before sin, the first humans were naked, without shame, and free.

So what are the implications for us? Because man fell [from grace or right standing with God], we all have an awareness of our nakedness, of our bodies as a site of inherent shame, and this inherent shame is a direct consequence of the serpent’s temptation. So every time a little effeminate boy is called a faggot and beat up by his classmates, or a transgender Black woman is murdered for having the audacity to exist in public, the serpent wins, and the anti-LGBT people of faith rejoice with him. Is that saying a whole hell of a lot? You bet it is. I said what I said.

So every time a little effeminate boy is called a faggot by his classmates, or a transgender Black woman is murdered for having the audacity to exist in public, the serpent wins, and the anti-LGBT people of faith rejoice with him.

I refuse to accept or participate in a faith tradition that excludes some while exalting others, that prizes some bodies above others, or draws lines of demarcation between who can and who cannot be joint-heirs with Christ. He didn’t just die for them. I don’t know which version of the Bible they’re reading, but in every one of the baker’s dozen I own, Jesus welcomed everyone to his table, and there are no garbage tables in God’s Kingdom.

Thanks as always for being a faithful reader of The Voracious Bibliophile. If you like what you see, please follow, like, comment, and subscribe to my email list to get notified of new posts as soon as they drop. You can also email me at thevoraciousbibliophile@yahoo.com or catch me on Twitter @voraciousbiblog. Keep reading the world, one page (or pixel) at a time.