The Power of the Dog’s complex themes stuck in Sam Elliott’s craw
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Sam Elliott has a reputation for being a man of few words, having built his career playing lanky, low-voiced laconic types in dozens of westerns and war movies. But hoo-boy, the 77-year-old actor had a lot to say in a recent rant about The Power of the Dog.
The Jane Campion-directed film is the current Academy Awards frontrunner. Elliott is not having it, though. In a recent appearance on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, he called the neo-western a “piece of s—t.”
Elliott’s stance is strongly worded and a bit weird. “What are all those dancers, those guys in New York that wear bowties and not much else?” Elliott starts out. (“Chippendales?” Maron suggests.)
“That’s what all these f—-ing cowboys in that movie looked like, running around in chaps and no shirts,” Elliott complained. “There were all these allusions to homosexuality throughout the f—-ing movie.”
“I think that’s what the movie’s about,” Maron replies.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays the film’s central character, Phil Burbank, a deeply conflicted cowboy running a cattle ranch with his brother in 1920s Montana. He called Elliott’s diatribe “a very odd reaction.” Some of that oddness comes from the fact that Elliott’s hostility seems to be directed more at an imaginary version of the movie than the movie itself.
The way Elliott frames it, The Power of the Dog sounds like a video for the Village People version of It’s Raining Men. In fact, it’s a very slow, sombre story. Adapted from a semi-autobiographical 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, a closeted gay man who was married with children when he left his family for a brief, intense affair with a man, the film is suffused with quiet dread.
The Power of the Dog is a gay film (among other things), but it’s far from being the flamboyant flaunt-fest that Elliott calls up. For most of the film’s runtime, Phil’s homosexuality is ferociously repressed, turned inwards to self-hatred and outwards to cruelty and contempt. In fact, some commentators have criticized the film for relying too much on stereotypes of the queer villain, dour and doomed and self-loathing, and for leaning too hard into the “bury your gays” trope, in which homosexuality is destined to be punished, often by death.
Still, Elliott can’t stop talking about chaps: “He had two pairs of chaps, a woolly pair and a leather pair. Every time he’d walk in from somewhere, he never was on a horse, maybe once, he’d walk into the f—-ing house, storm up the f—-ing stairs, go lay on his bed in his chaps and play his banjo. It was like, what the f—-?
“Where is the western in this western?” Elliott asks.
Revisionist westerns (or anti-westerns or deconstructed westerns or neo-westerns) are nothing new, going back decades to movies like The Wild Bunch, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Elliott himself has taken part in a postmodern riff on western tropes, as the cowboy narrator of The Big Lebowski, with its drifting tumbleweeds and its solitary protagonist who just won’t be fenced in.
Somewhat unconvincingly, Elliott tells Maron he thinks Campion is a brilliant director. “I love her previous work, but what the f—— does this woman from down there, New Zealand, know about the American west?” The fact that he refers to Campion only as “this woman” — Maron has to supply her actual name — seems to contradict his professed admiration.
“And why the f—- did she shoot this movie in New Zealand and call it Montana and say ‘this is the way it was?’ That rubbed me the wrong way, pal,” Elliott goes on. It’s true New Zealand stands in, not very convincingly, for the Montana foothills in The Power of the Dog. But this, again, is nothing new in the long history of the western genre. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was shot mostly in Spain, but nobody’s calling Sergio Leone a presumptuous know-nothing.
The really strange thing is that Elliott comes so close to one of the central insights of The Power of the Dog when he critiques the classical western’s myth of the tough, lone man on a horse.
“The myth is that there were these macho men out there with the cattle,” he says. “I just came from Texas where I was hanging out with families — not men, but families. Big, long, extended, multiple-generation families that made their living, and their lives were all about being cowboys.”
By obsessing over shirtless guys in chaps, Elliott seems to have forgotten the side of the film that’s all about families. Jesse Plemons plays Phil’s stolid brother George, and it’s George’s desire to have a family that drives the story’s conflict. When he brings his new wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her androgynous adolescent son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to live in the big ranch-house he shares with Phil, the lines between rugged individuality and community, tradition and modernity, men and women start to get very interesting.
The Power of the Dog complicates conventional myths, as good movies often do. Elliott may be claiming that Campion failed in her depiction of the American west, but his reaction suggests she got something right.