A darkened interior frames a lone man striding across a dusty plain. It’s one of the most well-worn images in cinema, and it provides a powerful visual shorthand for the themes of any Western: domesticity vs wilderness, safety vs adventure, and light vs dark. Just such a shot arrives in the first few frames of The Power of the Dog, and while it may be a familiar construction, it’s no surprise that director Jane Campion uses it as one of the building blocks for a unique interrogation of the genre.

Much of Campion’s past work has brilliantly dissected the traits and flaws of masculinity, so it’s hard to imagine a better match for her than the Western. Adapted from Thomas Savage’s novel, Campion’s script and direction highlight the many toxic ways that masculinity traditionally asserts itself within a patriarchal society.

The Power of the Dog is dominated by Phil, a swaggering, poisonous alpha male, played to perfection by Benedict Cumberbatch. He takes pathetic pride in the grime accumulated from his masculine toil, marked by his refusal to wash himself for a fancy dinner, or even to change into any clothes nicer or cleaner than the chaps and workshirt he wears on the plains. Most conspicuously, there is the way he behaves around other men. He is the alpha in his group of fellow ranchers, and, accordingly, he picks on the weakest of the litter, typically his brother George (Jesse Plemons). He mockingly addresses his brother as ‘Georgie’ or ‘Fatso’. It’s completely habitual; there’s barely even any malice to it. It’s just how he has learnt to behave: constantly reinforcing his dominance by grinding his brother’s nose into the dirt.

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Courtesy of: Netflix

Campion’s brilliance, and that of Cumberbatch with his well-shaded performance, is in how they give the viewer hints that this ritual bullying is also a cry for help. Phil may be the top dog, but he is also profoundly lonely. As the rest of his crew get blind drunk and dance at a local bar, he quietly retreats to his hotel room, looking for the companionship of his brother. He’s too traditionally masculine, and therefore emotionally immature, to engage with George on any reasonable, equal footing, so lashing out is the only kind of conversation he knows how to start.

This behaviour may paint Phil as the villain of the piece in the opening scenes, but Plemons’ resolutely restrained performance slowly shifts the balance of sympathies. Phil may be the antagonist in their relationship, but George is responsible for its deterioration too. He doesn’t take any of the olive branches that Phil offers, however barbed they may be, and he stonewalls every conversation Phil tries to start.

While the battle of wills may be between Phil and George, their struggle is over Rose (Kirsten Dunst), George’s new bride, and her suitability for the family – though, really, Phil seems to just fester with jealousy that George has escaped loneliness while he hasn’t. She quickly becomes just as taciturn and secretive as the men, another victim of the patriarchal structures that ruled society in Montana, 1925, where this film is set.

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Courtesy of: Netflix

She begins the film as an independent woman, running her own restaurant and hotel, and raising her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). That all changes when she marries George. What is ostensibly a good move for both of them quickly sours. Perhaps it’s telling that Campion invests very little time in their courtship, instead showing only a few kind gestures from George to help at the restaurant, and a brief picnic they share. Like so many of the time, this feels like a marriage of convenience and social climbing rather than a true love match. Dunst and Plemons may be married in real life, but here, Plemons is at his least appealing, intentionally suppressing his charisma.

Suddenly, Rose goes from the energised matriarch of her own domain to a timid wife, property of Mr George Burbank. She no longer runs her own affairs. She can’t even clean or cook in her own home now that she has servants. Instead, as emphasised brilliantly by Campion and cinematographer Ari Wegner’s framing, she is isolated and alone in a dark and lonely home. Her arrival is punctuated by the absence of Jonny Greenwood’s malevolent score, highlighting the awkward silences as she struggles to integrate. Her role now is to support George, which means being a good wife and providing the entertainment for the visit of his parents and the local governor and his wife.

When the moment comes to perform for their guests, George reveals himself to be just as pig-headed and unkind as his brother, despite his softer surface. He pushes Rose into her performance but Campion’s direction makes it clear how scared she is. The shallow focus isolates her anxiety as the guests gather around the piano in the background. She can barely play a note. What seemed like a trivial request has taken on great significance considering it is now the only avenue left for Rose to impress her new in-laws. The patriarchal confines of this family structure have not only twisted and closed Phil’s and George’s hearts, they have now destroyed Rose, too.

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Courtesy of: Netflix

The final layer of complexity is added by Smit-McPhee as Peter. He is queer-coded from his first appearance waiting tables in Rose’s restaurant. He fashions beautiful paper flowers that Phil burns in front of him; after all, any such outward deviations from the expected masculine norm must be humiliated and crushed. He lacks physical ability at horse riding or playing tennis, and, as Phil jibes him, he “talks like a Victrola record”. Such behaviour is considered aberrant by Phil and, as he puts it, Peter needs to “snap out of it and get human”. His feminine character within a male body is so disgusting to Phil that it seems inhuman.

That is his first mistake. At one point, Peter reveals that his late father was worried he was “too strong” and Phil scoffs. You’d be tempted to agree, looking at Smit-McPhee’s scarecrow frame. But he is talking about a different kind of strength. Phil views Peter as weak in both a physical sense and more deeply, because of his feminine traits and interests. To him, anything feminine is automatically inferior, but Peter has a determination and cunning that Phil underestimates at his peril.

The shadow hanging over the film, like the dog over the mountains, is that of Bronco Henry, Phil and George’s mentor. The reverence with which he is held by Phil and his crew starts to feel like a running joke, with every piece of rancher lore posthumously credited in his name. But it’s clearly not a laughing matter for Phil. He memorialises his mentor like a god, mounting his old saddle on the wall of the barn and ritually polishing it. The soft lighting and abstract framing with which Campion shoots this heavily implies that their relationship was closer than just friendship – a theory supported by the gay adult magazines stashed in the secret forest tunnel leading to Phil’s secluded bathing spot.

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Courtesy of: Netflix

These revelations cast a new light on the entire dynamic between Phil, George and Peter. Suddenly, Phil’s rejection of anything not traditionally masculine is explained perfectly by his repressed homosexuality. He can’t bear to be associated with someone as outwardly queer as Peter, so he tries to train it out of him, teaching the boy how to ride and hunt on long treks into the wilderness. But that’s not the right answer. It’s not even the right question. Phil is attempting to fix something that doesn’t need to be fixed. He’s trying to hide Peter’s queerness when he should be acknowledging his own. Traditional patriarchal relationships don’t allow for homosexuality so, in Phil’s eyes, it cannot be admitted. Instead, like all his other emotions and desires, it must be suppressed.

The Power of the Dog confounds expectations at every turn, shifting between major characters with each chapter, and shifting our understanding of them at the same time. The community that Campion depicts is a patriarchal one, ruled by physical strength and bravado, where emotions are suppressed or medicated. We may have moved on from skinning rawhide on the range, but the emotional conflicts created by such a rigid and patriarchal society are still with us today. Few filmmakers have ever explored the complexities of such a society as well as Campion has here.

So, to recap, here’s our Top 20 to 5…

#20 – After Love
#19 – Undine
#18 – No Time To Die
#17 – Ninjababy
#16 – The French Dispatch
#15 – Shiva Baby
#14 – Dune
#13 – Drive My Car
#12 – Annette
#11 – Minari
#10 – Sound of Metal
#9 – Spencer
#8 – First Cow
#7 – C’mon C’mon
#6 – Nomadland
#5 – The Power of the Dog

Stay tuned for the remainder of 2021 as we count down our Top 10 films of 2021!