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Peeling the Onion of Masculinity: Jane Campion’s Power of the Dog as Gothic Western

Campion’s film adaptation of Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel has met with almost universal praise, but not from lifelong screen cowboy, Sam Elliot: “What the fuck does this woman from down there know about the American west? Why the fuck did she shoot this movie in New Zealand and call it Montana?” He could have taken aim at Benedict Cumberbatch’s Englishness, but the oddness of Elliot’s explosive anger is that he remains silent about Campion’s real transgression: the idea of cowboys fucking each other.1 His sentiments could be transposed onto Brokeback Mountain, shot in Alberta under the direction of a Taiwanese director and based on a short story by Annie Proulx, a middle-aged divorcee from Vermont. Proulx and Campion are strong female voices with easily identifiable styles and similar thematic concerns operating in a male environment (the Hollywood of the male director) and exploring a masculine genre (the Western of McCarthy and McMurtry), and yet their queering of the cowboy is very different.

Ang Lee’s film Brokeback Mountain (2002) exists in the popular imagination as the “break-through gay western,” and there are similarities with The Power: both sets of protagonists exist in a state of “arrested development ” in which they replace cold parents with their love of the cowboy; they are forced to repress their homosexuality due to cowboy codes that endorse male friendship whilst rejecting intimacy; they perform a rugged masculinity that is homophobic and misogynistic; they decry modernity in favor of  nostalgia (Brokeback is set in 1963, yet there is no news of the Vietnam War, or the Civil Rights movement, only horses they have liked); landscape is queered to reflect a male sensibility in which same-sex love may flourish; they live sad, miserable lives and die in the last scene. However, the films look and feel very different. Rodrigo Prieto’s technicolor cinematography (rivers of sheep and longshots resembling Ride the High Country) combine with Gustavo Santaolalla’s guitar-picking soundtrack to produce a cross between a John Ford Western and a Douglas Sirk melodrama. Campion’s film, by contrast, is dominated by Ari Wegner’s shadowy interiors (the gloom of the barn) and Jonny Greenwood’s propulsive soundtrack of plucked cello and swooping dissonant brass. Even bathing is transformed from an exhibition of childish joy to a moment of uneasy transgression and surveillance. Most importantly, whilst we are guided to loath Phil Burbank, we are invited to sympathise with Jack and Ennis who are depicted as innocent victims of an intolerant society which condemns them for love they are unable to control. D. A. Miller complains that what we are asked to “accept” about them “is not their sexuality but their agonized attempts to fight it” (50). Thus, far from being transgressive, the film is a melodrama in which Lee’s delicacy, taste and restraint (the adjectives commonly deployed by critics to describe the film) becomes an aesthetic closet in which to imprison sexuality for a new audience.

Campion doesn’t do melodrama: she does trauma, sexual repression and twisted sexual power dynamics observed through a feminist lens. At art school, she was drawn to the work of Freida Kahlo and Joseph Bueys, both of whom suffered horrific accidents that shaped both the style and subject matter of their art. Her films take a painterly interest in trauma, creating images of pain against a setting that is dark and repressive. The Piano (1993) tells the story of Ada McGrath, an elective mute – the victim of trauma – who arrives in New Zealand with her piano to marry a colonial landowner, Stewart. She has built a wall around her erotic self, which finds expression through her piano. As she plays, Baines, the ranch manager, watches, then touches and over time gradually begins to remove her complicated clothing as he peels away her Victorian sensibilities. Stewart, meanwhile, spies through the keyhole: the sterile voyeur, who takes his revenge by chopping off a finger in an act of silencing and female castration. The film, Sue Gillett notes, displays Campion’s interest in the violence that emerges from sexual repression (51). It also establishes her preferred mode of story-telling – a repurposed Gothic inspired by Blue Beard’s Castle (an intra-textual reference) and Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847) – which, she told Miro Bilbrough, is “a gothic exploration of the romantic impulse” (115). A more muted version of this “romantic impulse” is apparent in her adaptation of Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady (1996), in which the heiress, Isabel Archer, inexplicably rejects three eligible suitors in favor of the shadowy aesthete Gilbert Osmond. Once again, sex and power are intertwined in the exploration of dark desire: she marries in a sadomasochistic desire to emulate the supplicant position held by Osmond’s daughter. Campion observes in the book of The Piano (1995): “I have enjoyed writing characters who don't have a twentieth-century sensibility about sex. They have nothing to prepare themselves for its strength and power’ (135). Thus, Campion’s heroines become victims of their own monstrous sexuality and are therefore silenced, controlled, and dismembered by monstrous men who fear their own castration.

It’s easy to see why Campion was drawn to Savage’s Power of the Dog; it’s a gothic Western in which Phil Burbank is made monstrous by a repressed homosexuality that threatens the cowboy codes by which he lives. Set in Utah in 1924, Phil and his brother George run the successful Burbank ranch. Where George embraces modernity (signified by his bowler hats and love of cars), Phil plays the part of cowboy: he never washes, eats in the bunkhouse, and is seldom out of his chaps. He is haunted by the memory of one of his father’s cowboys, Bronco Henry, who forms the core of the stories he tells throughout the film. When George marries a widow, Rose, and brings her back to the ranch, Phil revenges the betrayal by making her life such hell that she starts drinking. She also brings her effeminate son, Peter, who is mocked by both Phil and the other cowboys but possesses inner steel. As Phil struggles with his increasing attraction to Peter, the latter plots his own revenge on Phil for his cruelty, leading them to perform a darkly erotic pas de deux of misunderstood intentions.

Clearly, Phil is a Campion-style anti-hero; but why Savage, a family man and repressed homosexual, created such a monster requires explanation. There are autobiographical reasons: O. Alan Weltzien’s biography of the author tells us that The Power was written in the aftermath of a mid-life crisis during which Savage had a year-long affair with another man before returning home to his family. The traumatic ending came, as the lover recalls, when Savage’s son broke into their apartment, beat him up in front of his calmly observing father, before the latter demanded “rough sex” for the last time (93). The scene lends itself to psychoanalysis: the father watches his son destroy that part of himself of which he is most ashamed but knows he cannot control: the power of the dog. These are the complexities, the mixture of tenderness, guilt, and cruelty, that Savage will work out in the characterization of Phil in The Power. Weltzien also draws attention to broader biographical issues, particularly Savage’s relationship with his bullying step-uncle. His mother divorced when he was small and married a rich Montana rancher named Charles Brenner whose disapproving brother made her life a misery. He is recreated, Weltzien notes, in the figure of Ed Brewer in Savage’s most autobiographical novel, The Sheep Queen (1877) (Weltzien 2009, 126-7). It is narrated by the novelist Tom Burton (a surrogate Savage) and recalls his inability to protect his mother from Ed, “a woman hater” whose whole “purpose was to destroy my mother” (223,8). He “never bathed,” blew his nose “into a filthy blue bandana” and drove Tom’s mother into a quiet alcoholism before he was killed by an anthrax-infected haystack pole splinter (226, 7). All these features – the misogyny, the blue bandana, the means of death – are transferred to Phil’s character. Thus, it is possible to see Savage in The Power explaining away Ed’s cruelty (and by extension his own step-uncle’s) through Phil’s sexual repression. It is, as Weltzien argues, a simplistic reductionism (misogyny does not imply queerness) and punitive and lends itself to caricature; it also demands of the reader a more thoughtful engagement with the conditions that might be needed for such tortured characters to become themselves (2009, 127).

Phil also reflects a popular archetype - the “doomed homosexual ” – a character-type rooted in the conservative psychiatric community of the time and perpetuated by Hollywood. Savage’s novel appeared at a watershed moment: the Hollywood Production Code (which forbade even the mention of homosexuality) was loosening its grip and the gay community was two years away from Stonewall. The backlash appeared in scare stories masquerading as exposés. In 1967 (The year The Power was published) CBS News broadcast The Homosexuals, which cited a survey finding that 65 percent of Americans believed homosexuality was “more harmful to society than adultery, abortion, or prostitution.” The definite article reduces “the homosexual” to a confused child (who has failed to transition through the Freudian Oedipal stage), the sufferer of a disease (“inversion” and “perversion” were synonymous with “homosexual”), or a depraved Narcissist (who could be “cured” through medical intervention such as aversion therapy and lobotomy). These views were echoed in Time Magazine’s 1969 “The Homosexual in America,” which concluded that homosexuality “is a pathetic little second-rate substitute for reality, a pitiable flight from life” and ought not to be glamourized in any form. “The homosexual” appearing in Hollywood in the late fifties and sixties is far from glamorous. Despite the relaxation of the Production Code, the shadow cast by the Lavender Scare (which intertwined homosexuality with other anti-American behavior), frightened studios into presenting homosexual characters on screen as, in the words of Nikki Sullivan, “sad and twisted creatures whose perverse desires would inevitably lead to their tragic downfall, and often their death.” Typical are Reflections in a Golden Eye (1967), in which army officer (Marlon Brando) is imprisoned for shooting a young soldier after whom he lusts; and The Sergeant (1968) in which the eponymous sergeant, Rod Steiger commits suicide after drunkenly kissing a handsome male private. Even John Schlesinger’s progressive and Oscar-winning neo-Western Midnight Cowboy (1968) conforms to this rule: both protagonists live grim lives; they are both misogynistic and homophobic, and one of them dies in the last scene.

Campion loved Savage’s novel, telling Alex Arabian in the online version of Slant magazine:

Well, it’s a great book, and I love Savage’s amazing portrait of masculinity. It’s really subversive. And that’s what I found moving and interesting, because he really peeled the onion of masculinity, in a way, and with the story of Phil. And what we saw underneath was vulnerability, yearning, fear—not all the trappings of the average dominating man. And I really love the story for that quality. And also, his work with detail, which I love so much, like the tennis shoes and the dog and the hill and the comb and the rope—all these objects and things [that inform the] story. His ways of ‘telling’ [with] the paper flowers is just so up my alley.

She was drawn by Savage’s exploration of tortured masculinity (the vulnerability beneath the rugged cowboy carapace) and his deployment of easily identifiable symbols – both Western signifiers (rawhide ropes, saddles, rock formations and leather gloves) and obscure variations (combs, paper flowers, tennis shoes, and pianos). These objects become visual props in her storytelling interrogated for their queerness. Campion’s cinematic deployment is enriched by Lacanian gaze theory, which invites us to consider how the viewer’s desire may distort the perception of a particular object. Within the symbolic narrative of the film, Campion continually plays with the distinction between the eye and the gaze - the fact that when characters look at an object – a face, flowers, a rawhide rope – something remains obscure because they can’t see how their own desire distorts what they see. It is this blank spot – the sense that something is missing - that compels attention whilst constructing pleasure on absence. It finds its clearest expression in Phil’s invitation to his cowboys to identify the running dog supposedly inscribed in the rock formation above the ranch. It’s a curious test through which Phil parades his queer sensibility and his paranoia transformed into a form of gaslighting, extended through Wegner’s rolling shots to the cinema audience. Can we see it? If so, what does that mean?

In Campion’s gothic Western, Phil becomes her Heathcliff (made monstrous by monstrous passion); her Jekyll with his homosexual Hide ; and Rochester, the brooding lover with a guilty secret closeted in the attic. He is also a cowboy under siege from modernity (the cars that George covets), women (the noisy smokers who gather at the Red Mill), and inauthenticity (he scorns his cowboys for dressing out of Sears Catalogues). In Savage’s novel, fear of “appearing something he is not” makes Phil reject cowboy clothing, but Campion takes full advantage of the rustic BDSM iconography of chaps, spurs, and whips to explore the wearer’s queer longings. This should not surprise us: the costume in her costume dramas - the massed crinoline, hooped skirts, corseted waists - is invariably explored for its aesthetic appeal and political messaging, becoming an instrument of oppression that is interfered with, sniffed, and shed in displays of female sexual liberation. In The Power, it is Phil’s chaps, both leather (the close-ups in spaghetti Westerns neatly framing the crotch area), and the less familiar fur, which Campion identified during pictorial research. They looked “like satyrs” she told Catherine Shoard in interview, an observation that conjures up the half man half monster of fairy tale, but also the homosocial Arcadia depicted in the homoerotic poems of Frank Harris and Walt Whitman. In the latter’s Calamus poems same-sex love is both naturalized and sanctioned by being filtered through Classical allusion (the same allusions that allow Brokeback Mountain to become a site of transgressive love) transforming the Western landscape into what Chris Packard identified in his study of Queer Cowboys, as an “American satyriasis” (3). Thus, though Phil wears chaps to project an image of rugged masculinity, his furs and leathers continuously and ironically betray him.

As viewers of Campion’s film, we are drawn to Phil and his performance of a particularly tough cowboy identity. When we first see him, he is the traditional “lonesome cowboy” set against a familiar wilderness backdrop: but everything is wrong with Campion’s presentation. Despite his spurs he is not mounted and walking with a stiff gait; it is as though he is attempting the gunslinger’s prowl but getting it wrong. The awkwardness also alerts us to what Judith Butler has identified as the male anxiety of not performing gender correctly, especially when his clothes bespeak queerness; they remind us of drag – a costume that enables the wearer to perform a gender whilst continuously reminding us of the performance. Furthermore, there is something wrong with the music, which takes the plucked strings familiar to a Western soundtrack and defamiliarizes them. This is typical of Jonny Greenwood’s work throughout the film; a rock guitarist and classically trained musician, he scored Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007) – another dark film of obsession and repression – employing discordant strings and percussion to map the psychic and spiritual anxiety of the film’s central characters. In The Power, it is the plucked cello that provides the propulsive dissonance that reflects Phil’s inner turmoil. In the opening scene we are installed within the film, watching Phil through a series of glass panes from the bunkhouse. We are part of the Foucauldian surveillance architecture, which, he argues in Discipline and Punish (1977) “assures the automatic functioning of power.” That is, the “power” of a bunkhouse on the lookout for signs of non-conformity and forever hounding him, a paranoia encoded in the ambiguous symbol of the running dog.

Mirroring is important in both book and film, with characters performing the role of visual and thematic doubles to the troubled Phil. Again, it’s a common Campion device: In The Piano the aborigines dress in a surreal mockery of Western attire thereby reducing the power of the colonialists to performance. Phil’s double is his brother George (Jesse Plemons) whose chubby cleanliness and slow compassion contrast with Phil’s lean filthiness and viciousness. Campion was to have reinforced this dualism by opening the film with a scene in which Phil castrates cattle before his admiring cowboys whilst George totals numbers with a “pencil stub.” Ostensibly, the pencil is the phallic signifier of George’s emasculation; however, really it is Phil who is enacting his self-castration before cowboys, who, if they thought hard about it, would recognise their own castration by conforming to the code of the all-male bunkhouse. The scene was moved into the body of the film, no doubt to save the viewers’ sensibilities, but also to coincide with the arrival of Peter – Phil’s other double. Campion’s casting of Kodi Smit-McPhee (fresh from playing the role of a spectral innocent abroad in John Maclean’s Slow West (2015)) becomes the image of effeminacy that will haunt Phil. A jump edit moves from the scene of castration to a shop interior, where we see Peter buying a white Stetson and tennis shoes – a deliberately camp alternative to Phil’s cowboy wardrobe. His presence is disconcerting, but in many ways, he is an updated version of all those effeminate saddle partners found in the B Western (Snub Pollard and Pinky Lee) whose affected mannerisms and soft speaking voices, as Roderick McGillis observes, served to put “the hero’s strong masculinity into sharp focus” (14-15).

Peter, however, is an interrogator of, rather than foil to, cowboy masculinity, whose problematising function is made clear by the nick that Phil gives to his hand with his castrating knife: Peter will need careful handling, because he will exploit Phil’s open wounds (both literal and metaphorical) to revenge his mother (see Figure 1). Campion alerts us to Peter’s role through his opening voice-over: “When my father passed, I wanted nothing more than my mother’s happiness. For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?” This isn’t in Savage’s novel, but in privileging Peter’s voice Campion highlights the Western’s preoccupation with what it is to be a man, and the unusual solution that Peter provides to the tautological “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.” Phil, who is obsessed with his own manliness dismisses him as “as sissy” (the staple performance of an exaggeratedly feminine gay identity in early Hollywood) and “Little Lord Fauntleroy” – its performative archetype. However, he misses the intertextual point that Fauntleroy’s clothing is a mask that enables him to fit into English society whilst he works to get his single mother accepted. In essence, his “sissy” performance provides cover for his cold calculations. This is Peter’s trick in the film; his flexible identity makes him difficult to pin down for both characters and viewer alike.

Peeling the Onion of Masculinity: Jane Campion’s Power of the Dog as Gothic Western, Mark Asquith, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: Peter is an interrogator of, rather than foil to, cowboy masculinity.

They are brought together through Campion’s use of hand imagery. Her source is Savage (for whom hands and gloves symbolise rugged masculinity and protective secrecy) but Campion uses them to express forbidden emotions. In The Piano Ada’s hands express her emotions through signing and playing and eventually the caresses that characterise her relationship with Baines; hence, chopping off her finger is a form of castration. In The Portrait, as Kathleen McHugh notes, it is the caressing hands of her three lovers in Isabel’s erotic fantasy that make clear her repressed sexual desire in a way that Henry James dare not write (96). In The Power Phil’s hands are part of his protective armoury in a ranch world policed for signs of non-conformity; yet, as the only part of him that is literally exposed (he refuses to wear gloves because they are effeminate), they constantly undermine him. His skill at castrating without gloves is ironic, but he is adept at making dolls house furniture (as if to construct a world that will maintain his childhood) and braiding rawhide rope (a western signifier transformed into symbol of gay love). Peter’s soft, sensitive hands, by contrast, are lethal: they twist crepe flowers but also rabbit necks and dissect them to get to the heart of things. They will perform the same operation on Phil: they will caress him, uncover his deepest desires before figuratively wringing his neck. They first meet at the Red Mill where Peter serves Phil and his raucous cowboys. Wegner’s subjective camera angles make clear that Phil is keeping Peter under scrutiny; his lisping mockery plays well to his cowboys but also announces his repressed self. Campion broke down the scene for Sarah Ward  in the online version of Screen International, claiming that it introduces “the subversive dialogue that goes on throughout the film,” which becomes visual when “Phil inserts his dirty finger into the centre of Peter’s delicate flowers, which is extremely provocative in many ways” (see Figure 2). When Phil lights his cigarette by the paper flower (a post-coital cigarette by other means), Campion notes that it guides us to “the sensuality underneath and everywhere and also the explosiveness of possibilities to come” (Ward, Screen International).

Peeling the Onion of Masculinity: Jane Campion’s Power of the Dog as Gothic Western, Mark Asquith, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: “Ain’t these purdy:” Phil inserts his dirty finger into the centre of Peter’s delicate flowers.

The struggle between Phil and Peter is foreshadowed and created by the former’s persecution of Rose. It begins at the piano (naturally!), a site of emotional expression and class consciousness filtered through a Western lens. Pianos in Westerns are symbols of civilising femininity (it is part of Molly’s educational armoury in The Virginian), a stereotype undermined by the drunken revelling at the Red Mill and Rose’s backstory as a pianist in the cinema pit, where “civilisation” becomes conflated with sentimental escapism. Ironically, when George installs a piano in the Burbank living room (in a scene of backbreaking labour reminiscent of the journey a similar instrument makes through impenetrable jungle in The Piano) it will be to reinforce his dreams of gentility. However, rather than giving her a voice (its function with Ada), it silences her by underlining a form of economic “castration” (playing is now an accomplishment not a job) and her imposter-syndrome (George’s favorite is “Like A Gypsy”). Where George is “tone deaf” to her plight, Phil, who has a talent for divining people’s vulnerability, is acutely aware of the piano as a means of exposing her discomfort. In a scene during which Rose practices The Radetzky March for the governor’s dinner party, we hear the barely perceptible sound of Phil’s banjo (another prop in his cowboy performance) playing the same music with virtuosity. We have entered the world of Bronte’s Jane Eyre, in which a woman is trapped in a suffocating domestic space, whilst a madwoman (a once rejected lover) roams the attic space. In Lacanian terms – in which the phallus is a transferable symbol of power regardless of sex – it is once again Phil’s clever fingers doing the castrating.

The success of his gaslighting becomes apparent at the actual dinner party. The mise-en-scene of the Burbank’s gloomy, underlit living room means that we are drawn to the blonde curls and sheer white dress of Rose, whose discomfort is ably transmitted through Kirsten Dunst’s agonised middle-distant stare (see Figure 3). She is the virgin sacrifice in Henry Fuseli’s “Nightmare” encounter with the incubus Phil, the horror of her predicament reinforced by the story that the cook tells of a clumsy tractor driver who splits open a coffin to reveal that the occupant’s “lovely golden hair” had continued to grow (67): Rose is that woman; she is trapped in a living death pretending that she is something that she is not. Campion continues the theme of entombment by adding that the Old Lady has been reading about the curse of Tutankhamun (Those who discovered the tomb died prematurely.), which again makes us think of Phil, the king who curses all those who desecrate the “closet” of the Burbank ranch (51). It is also Rose (who, according to the screenplay, was to have dressed for the evening in a turban (50), whilst the detail “he was only eighteen ” pivots towards Peter, who curses Phil for his treatment of his mother and will poison him in revenge. Rose has been “poisoned” by Phil’s mocking surveillance making his presence immaterial; we watch her keyboard paralysis from his empty table setting, which forces us to become active participants in her scopophilic persecution. Savage ends her humiliation at the keyboard, but Campion reintroduces Phil at the end, his whistling a haunting tribute to Sergio Leone’s No Name, his casual munching of an apple a reminder of his Fallen status (56). He has already bitten into the apple of knowledge and been cast out, and he resents this fools’ paradise endorsed by the cloying sentimentality of the show tunes she used to perform in the cinema pit.

Peeling the Onion of Masculinity: Jane Campion’s Power of the Dog as Gothic Western, Mark Asquith, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3: She is the virgin sacrifice in Henry Fuseli’s “Nightmare” encounter with the incubus Phil.

In Phil’s world, male touching is so closely policed that it can only manifest itself in the disembodied touch of Bronco Henry, which is re-enacted in memory (in his private bathing place) and in Peter’s touch (which brings about his death). Campion’s interest in the porosity of transgressive borders is apparent in an additional scene in which a fully clothed Phil rides through a screen of willows (the tree that screens his own bathing pool, transforming it into a pastoral version of the closet) past his own cowboys cavorting naked in the river. We are reminded of the famous “twenty-eight bathers” section from Whitman’s Song of Myself in which the usual voyeuristic model is reversed to show a wealthy woman finding pleasure in secretly watching a group of men bathing. As she watches and imagines joining them, the persona watches her – “Where are you off to, lady? For I see you . . . [They] did not see her, but she saw them and loved them” (206) and we watch both in a layering of scopic interest. Campion’s cowboys frolic and adopt similar poses to those of Whitman whose – “young men float on their backs, their white bellies bulge to the sun” (214) - but her addition of a scantily clad cowboy inverted on his horse staring at the Stetsons covering the crotches of a couple of sleeping companions problematises this innocent picture.

To begin with, the position of the horseman prepares us for the entry of Phil - the truly “inverted” cowboy who secretly finds erotic pleasure in staring at his cowboys. The carefully placed Stetsons also remind us of the dilemmas that men face when engaged in activities during which they are required to be communally naked, when prurience and looking becomes part of delicate homosocial politics. In “Sexuality in Solitude,” Michel Foucault discusses the problem of men monitoring men and the dangers of the rebellious body. Taking us back to Eden, he argues that the Fall brought an awareness that sexual organs are aroused without consent, and when Adam covers his genitals with a fig leaf, it is not simply an act of shame but an acknowledgement that his rebellion is echoed in the erection of his body (1985: 370). Hence, the male body becomes a site of spiritual struggle, not against external agents but against the libido which, like the power of the dog, is powerful and forces the individual to “discover the truth in oneself” (1985: 372). Thus, in the Eden of Campion’s waterhole, the cowboys’ Stetsons prevent their exposure (both literal and metaphorical) whilst simultaneously signifying their awareness of the possibility of bodily rebellion. As the camera moves from the initially objective homosocial spectacle to the subjective view of the repressed homosexual voyeur, Phil, we are removed to a safe psychic distance: we are not the ones staring at naked cowboys. Phil is the fully clothed boss (his clothes reinforcing the patriarchal power structure) peeking through the trees; his voyeurism is a form of sadism in which the camera enacts the desire to dominate encoded in Mulvey’s theorising of the male gaze (12-13). However, our knowledge of Phil’s repressed homosexuality means that his look is not sadistic but anguished, thwarted and, in Freudian terms, masochistic. It is also easily subverted, as happens when a group of cowboys stare back with the underlying homophobic challenge: “What the fuck are you looking at?” A question that is easily applied to the cinema viewer.

This demand is less rhetorical and becomes a genuine inquiry in the erotically charged scene in which Phil bathes in his own private water hole: what exactly are we looking at? As Greenwood’s frenetic score gives way to slow churning strings infused with both a spiritual warmth and melancholy, Phil is presented standing naked to the waist in leather chaps. It is a pose both familiar and strikingly unfamiliar. We are remined of Alan Ladd’s Shane in the root digging scene (Shane, 1953), and Joe Starrett’s lingering gaze validating that of an audience as they literally excavate the disguised, displaced, inadmissible homosexual pleasure that is at the root of their relationship. Here, the stripped-down cowboy is inactive: It is an invitation to simply view the man. There is no character offering a subjective screen and there is no narrative alibi explaining our presence: we are placed by the eyeline camera angle in the position of voyeur. We are not invited to identify with Phil (there are no reaction shots that weave us into the diegetic world), but his movements organize the three-dimensional space that is the focus point of the scene. Our position is perverse (in the Freudian sense of taking pleasure in being a passive witness to the secret) because Campion is breaking a Hollywood taboo (also inverting Mulvey’s Gaze) by asking us to look at a male nude.

Conventionally, male nudity is a means of displaying muscle mass, therefore transforming the body into an instrument of domination over other men rather than an erotic object. This is its function, as Lee Clarke Mitchell has argued, in the traditional Western, which “invented a dream man, a tiger in high-heeled boots and chaps, and then placed him prominently as the target of all eyes” with the proviso that our appreciation remains furtive and unacknowledged (161). Phil is our tiger, but his body is not dominant, but eroticised and vulnerable, lost in an exploration of its own sexual identity (see Figure 4). This process is augmented by Phil’s caressing of Henry’s yellow neckerchief, which performs the function of the Lacanian objet petit a - not an object of desire but its stimulant – that substitutes the touch of Henry. It reminds us of a scene in The Piano in which a naked Baines lovingly caresses the piano keys of the absent Ada. It is a scene enriched by the dismantling of Harvey Keitel’s tough guy persona to reveal a sensitivity to this symbol of Ada’s erotic expression. In Phil’s case, our spectatorial impression is similarly shaped by Cumberbatch’s well-publicised heteronormativity, combined with his fame for playing characters - Sherlock Holmes, Alan Turing – with conflicted sexuality. Here, we watch a straight man performing the role of a repressed gay man who is masquerading as a heterosexual whilst secretly exploring his queer manhood. The scene is brought to an abrupt end by the entry of Peter, fresh from perusing Phil’s recently discovered stash of “Physical Culture” Magazines, which carry the tagline “Weakness is a Crime. Don’t be a Criminal.” In the water hole, Peter is confronted with the contents brought to life in the nude posing of Phil giving into his “criminal weakness .” For Phil, by contrast, Peter’s presence in this private space is a violation: the problem is not what Peter has witnessed, but the fact that he embodies the effeminacy that is his worst fear and which he has sought to play down in his transgressive attachment to Henry. Hence his aggressively homophobic rejection of the effeminate: “Get out of here you little bitch.”

Peeling the Onion of Masculinity: Jane Campion’s Power of the Dog as Gothic Western, Mark Asquith, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4: Phil’s Private Bathing Pool: Behold the man.

Phil and Peter are brought together through the rawhide rope, another objet petit a that weaves together the ego ideal (Henry) with its monstrous other (Peter) to create the whole Phil. It is introduced at the “Haymaking Camp” – a sunlit Arcadian scene in which stripped-down cowboys work the fields, looking, Elliot complains, “like Chippendales.” Peter’s entry into this male environment is met with derision. He is cat-called and wolf-whistled when he marches purposefully (the augmented diegetic sound of his stiff denim zip-zipping) between the lolling cowboys to inspect a nest of “chattering young magpies” who have built their “tawdry” nest in a stunted willow tree (74). The symbolism is important: their coloration reminds us of the black hat/white hat binary presented by Phil and Peter; the willow tree a damaged version of Phil’s pastoral closet. Peter, like the magpies, is not for hiding in the shadowy forest, but has the confidence to carry on his noisy transgressive performance into the outside world (75). It would be nice to read Phil’s grudging admiration for his “gumption ” as his reason for befriending Peter and teaching him to braid, but Campion’s screenplay makes clear it is a means of revenge for Rose taking his brother. Whilst Peter stares at Phil’s rope, Phil glances at Rose, “warming to his new strategy seeing how a little befriending so upsets her,” which is translated into the horror etched on the face of Kirsten Dunst (76).

Beneath the plotting, however, Campion’s characters engage in a more “subversive dialogue” revealing feelings of which Phil is unaware and which Peter, who has a scientific approach to semiotics, exploits. His opening “You want me Mr Burbank?” is a statement masquerading as a question that borders on the parodic (75). So too does his response to Phil’s promise to have the rope ready for when Peter goes back to school: “It won’t be very long then Phil.” What won’t: the rope length, braiding time, or the time Phil has to live? Thus, where Phil never grasps the full import of the rope in front of him, seeing it only as a romantic symbol of Henry’s West, Peter is fully aware of its ambiguities and how these might be exploited.

The rope is central to the denouement in the barn, which is made possible by a scene in which Peter and Phil play a childish game by removing fence posts to reveal a rabbit who has injured himself trying to escape. On a practical level, Phil sustains the injury that Peter will exploit; symbolically, the rabbit is Phil, whose gradual exposure as the protective layers are removed, reveals a frightened and injured creature. When Phil asks Peter to “put him out of his misery” he is referring to the rabbit and, at a subconscious level, to himself (88). The denouement is also brought about by the scene in which Rose gives Phil’s hides away to a travelling Shoshone father and son, thereby making him reliant on Peter’s rawhide. In Savage’s novel, the trader is Jewish which allows Savage to add antisemitism to the list of Phil’s faults. In Campion’s version, the buyers are the Shoshone father and son that Phil had humiliated earlier (92). Thus, she chooses to emphasise Rose’s act of generosity as an act of revenge for Phil stealing her son. This framing also enables the Shoshone father to protect his son from a possible humiliation by a white woman’s dismissal. Their unexpected gift of soft leather gloves (what the hides will be turned into) allows revolt to be softened into kindness; the gloves will protect her figuratively from Phil’s anger and literally from her son’s act of revenge.

The barn-scene is full of erotic tension: Wegner’s distorting camera angles combine with a mise-en-scene of fetishized cowboy accoutrements to create a noire scene textured by Greenwood’s soundtrack of sweeping atonal strings and open horns. Phil’s explosive anger is captured by Wegner’s handheld camera, whilst Peter’s entrance, baring rawhide, brings calm. Campion’s screenplay follows Savage closely: 

Then Peter touches his arm - touches it. Phil is stilled, he looks down at Peter’s hand on his own arm.

Pete: Phil – I’ve got rawhide to finish the rope.
Phil: You’ve got it? What you doing with rawhide?
Pete: I cut some up, Phil. I wanted to be like you. Please take what I’ve got?
They were facing each other, and the boy’s hand remained where it was.
Pete: You’ve been good to me, Phil
At that moment Phil feels a catch in his throat that he’d felt once before and never expected or wanted to feel again, for the loss of it breaks your heart . . . Ah, but Phil had almost forgot what the touch of a hand will do and in his heart counted the seconds that Peter’s was on him and rejoiced at the quality of the pressure. It told him what his heart required to know. (97)

Hands transform from symbols of masculinity to symbols of tenderness, and the dialogue around the rope reveals more than Phil is aware. The first reaction - “You’ve got it?” - is unexpected (“some” would be more appropriate) and indeterminate: is the “it” the rawhide or the “otherness” suggested by its possession? In accepting Peter’s handling of rawhide, Phil is acknowledging his similarity to Henry and by extension himself. Peter, by contrast, knows exactly what he is saying. His repetition of Phil’s name plays the same role as the touching hand, caressing and taming. The parodic double-entendres, “Take what I’ve got” and “You’ve been good” indicate a young man entirely comfortable with the Western script and exposing the campness and the desire beneath.

As the men stand gazing into each other’s eyes the slow orbital tracking of the camera is reminiscent of a daytime melodrama; a kiss seems imminent (see Figure 5), there is even a cut away to a traverse shot of the mountains to remind us of the libidinous dog, but the sexual tension is redirected to the rawhide rope. A man – and particularly a cowboy - is happier outsourcing complex emotions than naming them. As Phil weaves, Wegner’s camera focus switches between the rope, the observing Peter, and the tangles of rawhide steeped in water made pink by Phil’s wound. Campion explained to Mekado Murphy in the “Anatomy of a Scene” posted online for the New York Times that “Peter flirting with Phil,” behaviour reciprocated in slow motion shots of Phil stretching of the rawhide suggestively over his leather chaps and the additional story of how Henry saved Phil’s life by sharing a bedroll during a snowstorm. Peter’s question “naked?” provokes a choked laugh that masks Phil’s yearning. However, once again it is Phil’s hands that undermine his protestations, as Wegner gives us a close-up that shows him inserting Peter’s rope into his own (Murphy, “Anatomy”). The eroticism carries through to their shared cigarette. We watch Peter through Phil’s eyes as he suggestively licks the cigarette paper in the shadows, and then Phil smoking the cigarette between his fingers. Peter’s little smile tells us, as Campion makes clear, that “he knows that he has” him. The smoking is post coital and the last cigarette of the condemned man. Just in case we have missed its erotic implications, Campion cuts to a shot of what she calls “raw” and “sexy” horses milling in slow motion in a metaphorical allusion to the tactility of the untamed libido (Murphy, “Anatomy)

Peeling the Onion of Masculinity: Jane Campion’s Power of the Dog as Gothic Western, Mark Asquith, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 5: When a kiss seems imminent.

Phil’s death is brought to us in a series of edits: the first recreates the film’s opening as we watch through the same windows Phil in his ill-fitting city suit carrying the rawhide rope followed by George driving his car: figuratively, the cowboy is dead but clinging to the last vestiges of the West (which, ironically, includes the queer relations woven into the rope). Next, we see him lying on the undertaker’s slab having a haircut before being placed in a coffin; the symbolism suggests that the events in the barn have killed the cowboy and the safest place for this new version of Phil is the closet. This powerfully heteronormative ending is reinforced by Peter’s heterosexual reading of the verse from Psalm 22 that gives the film its title - “Deliver my soul from the sword, / My darling from the power of the dog ” (19-22) - Phil is the dog whose death delivers his darling mother. And as, in the final scene, Peter gazes down on George and Rose kissing beneath the moonlight whilst he stashes the rawhide rope beneath his bed, it suggests that the rope is there for George if he fails to make Rose happy. More troublingly, it also implies that this scene of heterosexual happiness is only possible when men hide the homosocial bonds represented by the rope.

Indeed, the only thing to problematise this powerfully heteronormative ending is the ambiguity of Peter’s continued gender performance. One of last scenes shows him playing with a “half-breed collie,” which suggests the violence and libidinousness of “the power of the dog” giving way to a more playful and caring relationship. The last shot shows him holding up a “paper rose” and viewing “it from every angle” – a softer symbol of adaptation (all the real flowers wither in the harsh climate) that challenges the ropes and chaps of a model of masculinity that projects control whilst simultaneously announcing their own queerness (106). This suggests a more progressive message: the repressed cowboy making way for a more sexually ambiguous character better adapted to life in Campion’s queer West.


1  Quoted in Joe Dolce, ‘1883 and The Power of the Dog: True and False in the Old West,’ Quadrant Magazine (July 16, 2022) https://quadrant.org.au/magazine/2022/07-08/1883-and-the-power-of-the-dog-true-and-false-in-the-old-west/ [accessed 3 May 2023].

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