Jane Campion’s Venice-Winning Feature is a Wickedly Wonderful Western that Demands to be Seen for Progressive LGBTQ Representation

by Hassan Ilahi

It’s hard to forgive a genre in as unforgivable stigma by encouraging truly gritty homophobia as the western. Following prejudiced ideologies, westerns are no longer ledger-ndary celebrities that broke barriers by bouldering mountains for LGBTQ communities. For example, James Mangold’s 3:10 to Yuma granted million-dollar rewards for arresting LGBTQ communities pursued by crow-like authorities. In all fairness, westerns were originally envisioned before LGBTQ rights achieved prosperity during a conservative century when homosexuality was unauthorized. During 1950’s, wayne-derous westerns ascertained sheriff authority through squ-clint-eyed masculinity. Contrary to common knowledge, however, historians argue homosexuality galloped through Wild West without being publicized. As Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain demonstrated, LGBTQ communities merit history visibility. Can westerns stagecoach re-sergio-unce by repaying gay communities’ fistful of dollars bounties despite bad and ugly centuries?

In a genre that isn’t Ford-midable gunslinger anymore once upon a time in the West, Jane Campion’s Venice-winning film The Power of the Dog unleashes LGBTQ communities like powerful dogs to trespass countries for straight old men. Ambitious, old-fashioned and thoughtful, it modernizes westerns without homophobic stigma. With her eighth feature, Campion debunks mythologies through rewarding LGBTQ communities horse-riding opportunities. Packed with gorgeous cinematography, exquisite symbolism and phenomenal performances, it reinvents genre. Although The Power of the Dog is undeniably powerful, ultimately it isn’t flawless. It’s powerlessly paced, and bitten by pre-paws-terous ending. Nonetheless, it offers meaningful entertainment that’ll delight western fans.

Set in 1920’s Montana, The Power of the Dog follows a closeted cowboy whose sexuality is publicly denounced by his conservative family. Benedict Cumberbatch stars in the lead role as Phil Burbank, a hostile rancher that hides sexuality behind masculinity. When his brother’s family arrives for unannounced visits, Phil propounds dominance. However, the tormented relationship becomes tender when Phil romances nephew Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). As Phil succumbs, he challenges homophobia.

Jane Campion has always championed sexuality self-discovery stories. Ever since she attained appreciation with 1993’s The Piano, Campion has transformed into an extraordinary female filmmaker. Her Palme d’Or-winning film The Piano offered heartbreaking glimpses into a psychologically speechless woman’s self-discovery journey through piano-playing hobbies. With The Power of the Dog, however, Campion builds her first queer literature adaptation. It’s Campion’s first attempt to incorporate LGBTQ literature into homophobic genre, but she accomplishes it successfully. Using captivating cinematography, Campion immerses viewers into a closeted cowboy’s resistance against homophobic traditions in Wild West. Imitating Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, Campion successfully utilizes cinematography point-of-view to symbolize power dynamic of a homosexual rodeo released from society’s restrictions. Like Django’s emancipation from Southern slavery, Phil is framed from low-angle to demonstrate his domineering status. Resembling Tarantino’s slavery empowerment, Campion challenges homosexuals’ powerless position throughout Wild West history. Working alongside cinematographer Ari Wegner, Campion meticulously uses low angles to empower gay communities. Campion excels at celebrating LGBTQ communities in homophobic genre, and her Venice-winning movie is worth watching for this reason alone.

If literature about homosexual ranchers does not attract your attention, though, there are still plenty of other reasons to watch The Power of the Dog. Campion succeeds at demonstrating oppressed homosexual experiences in Wild West using thought-provoking read-between-line symbolism. In Hollywood, most westerns rely excessively on nostalgia and look towards classics for inspiration despite behind-the-time conventions. Case in point: Gore Verbinski’s The Longer Ranger faced gory gunfire for ton-tooth-less Native-American depiction. Thankfully, though, this isn’t the problem with The Power of the Dog. Campion judiciously resists misconceived genre nostalgia in depicting homosexuality. Instead, she meticulously utilizes symbolism to demonstrate homosexuals’ relationships. Accompanied by production-designer Grant Major, Campion successfully utilizes symbolism to signify Phil’s concealed sexuality. For instance, symbolism is used particularly well to signal Phil’s restrained sexuality in the photo-album scene. During this memorable sequence, Phil’s nephew is disturbed to discover his uncle’s sexuality when he uncovers nude photo-albums. Embodying similar meaning as Elio’s peach in Luca Guadagnino’s Call Me By Your Name, photo-albums symbolize sexual gratification during homophobic times. Through symbolism, Campion validates homosexuality’s West presence. It marks welcome inclusivity in an industry that’s all-too-often treated homosexuals as history footnotes. Moreover, Johnny Greenwood’s score merits praise. It builds tension that evokes Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. Through superb production, Campion modernizes cowboys.

One can’t overlook outstanding performances.

Benedict Cumberbatch delivers one of his finest career performances as Phil Burbank. Cumberbatch earned stardom for playing queer historical figures in biopics (ex. Morten Tyldum’s Imitation Game) With The Power of the Dog, however, he takes on his most challenging career role. It’s not simple to depict a homosexual cowboy that disregards traditions in 1920’s West. However, Cumberbatch pulls it off aptly. Evoking Daniel Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood, Cumberbatch crafts a fearsome tycoon that favors power over family. With riveting expressions, he captures bravado, longing and temptations of a closeted cowboy that restrains sexuality. It’s a brilliant performance from Britain’s thespian.

Kirsten Dunst is dazzling in the role of a humiliated housewife that endeavors to protect family from outlaw brother-in-law. In a genre that’s commonly dismissed women as damsels-in-distress, Dunst challenges misogynist stereotypes. Deriving inspiration from Anna Gunn in Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad, Dunst creates a multi-layered dysfunctional family mother without dialogue. Whether she’s confronting her brother-in-law’s mean-spirited remarks or protecting her vulnerable son, Dunst expertly employs body-language to capture housewifes’ hardships. It’s a phenomenal performance that celebrates women.

The concluding standout is Kodi Smit-McPhee. As an adolescent questioning sexuality, he imbues child-like curiosity into storytelling.

Despite its marvelous performances, however, The Power of The Dog mounts slow stagecoach rather than high-noon cavalries without truly gritty galloping abilities of magnificent seven movies. Campion’s decision to structure storytelling through roman-numeral chapters is imaginative and unexpected, but it hinders pacing. Although these event indicators enhanced the original novel, they transition awkwardly to big-screen. Due to this misjudged technique, sequences that focus on Phil’s voyeuristic forest voyages aren’t as entertaining as heated sister-in-law tensions. Furthermore, the film suffers from an ambiguous conclusion. It’s a perplexing finale that instigates questions rather than providing satisfying closure. Whereas this open-to-interpretation finale worked for the Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, it clashes with this movie’s realism. Put simply, this “Inception”-like ending seems intended purely to spark internet explanations rather than commemorate source material. Consequently, The Power of the Dog stumbles short of ground-breaking westerns.

On a final note, it’s worth mentioning The Power of the Dog’s powerful dog-injuries won’t suit everyone’s sensitive skin. Due to preferences for storytelling over shoot-outs, the movie won’t satisfy mainstream audiences. The movie discusses controversial themes such as misogyny, homosexuality and spirituality that’ll disturb viewers. Viewers that disapprove of animal dissections won’t enjoy the movie. Accordingly, The Power of the Dog’s growls won’t accommodate everyone’s ears.

Ultimately, The Power of the Dog is a satisfactory rodeo that tames ruthless cavalries which often surpass his powerless abilities. An empowering but overambitious western, it demonstrates homosexuals deserve home in masculine genre. As unforgiven outlaws owing centuries-old bounties, it’s high noon time westerns le-oaned homosexual communities reward to dance with wolves in countries for old men despite mythologies that wealth isn’t in their tombstone bad and ugly destinies.

Hassan’s Grade: B+