Of the film genres that shaped Hollywood during its classical period from the 1930s through 1960s, none contributed more to America’s self-mythologization than the Western. The genre’s avatar was the white cowboy, who—taciturn, self-authorizing, phallic—transmuted the genocidal violence of the frontier into the erotic spectacle of masculine heroism. Abjuring domesticity (and, for the most part, women), this Founding Father astride a horse was set off against a hostile natural landscape. The rugged man in the rugged land occasioned the genre’s display of cinematographic virtuosity, its celebration of film as a visual medium.
It is perhaps because Westerns give such full expression to the conjoined myths of nation, whiteness, and masculinity that the genre has remained an object of revisionist fascination—from its countercultural reimagining in films like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), to the reversals of its rules along the lines of gender (The Quick and the Dead, 1995), sexuality (Brokeback Mountain, 2005), and race, as in Netflix’s current release, The Harder They Fall (2021).
The secret of the Western is that its mythology nurtures a queer fantasy, hiding in plain sight. The genre encodes a fascination with men’s moral and physical relations, the capacities of their bodies, what they cannot say—but what they can do—with and to each other.
At the outset of Red River (1948), John Wayne rejects the entreaties of glamor-lit Coleen Gray to take her to Texas, explaining that “it’s too much for a woman.” Minutes later, Montgomery Clift arrives on the scene, every bit as glamorous as Gray. The cowboy thus acquires a son without any need for a mother. In a film whose homoerotic double entendres still delight bloggers 70 years later, the daddy-son relation is dislodged from biology and swept into the incestuous undercurrents of patriarchal fantasy.
Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, adapted from the 1967 novel of the same name, by Thomas Savage, revives the homosexual eros that gives the classic Western its libidinal force and sentimentality. The film sets up a traditional gender binary, counterposing Rose (Kirsten Dunst)—delicate as her namesake, a creature of the domestic interior—to Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), who castrates bulls with his bare hands and never showers. There are other masculinities on view: for example, that of Phil’s brother, George (Jesse Plemons), whom he calls “Fatso”; the urbane and gregarious Governor; and Mr. Burbank senior, the brothers’ father, who is also a city man. In succumbing to coupledom, these men have broken the contract of the Western, whose masculine heroes choose a perceived freedom over domestication.
And, indeed, it is bachelor Phil’s cowboy masculinity that fascinates Campion’s camera, which keeps it in focus almost continuously. This masculinity is not a birthright: in the world of the cowboys, one is not born a man, but becomes one through disciplined repetition. To this extent, the Western subscribes to the theory of gender performativity: “Won’t anything make a man out of you?” says Wayne to Clift in Red River.
Phil’s instructor in the ways of masculinity was Bronco Henry, who survives only as the subject of the former’s nostalgic anecdotes. Bronco Henry taught Phil everything he knows about being a cowboy, and Phil strives to be like him while passing on his lessons. The structure of masculine transmission is pederastic, in the classical sense; perhaps it is not so incongruous that rugged cowboy Phil (whose name, ironically, means love) is fluent in Greek and Latin.
According to Campion, Savage was a closeted gay man. This biographical note risks particularizing what the film presents as a more structural truth: that the mythic masculinity of the Western is grounded in homosexual eros—or, which amounts to the same thing, in the terrorized relation to the specter of that eros’s possibility.
Brokeback Mountain offered a liberal take on desire’s variability, keeping homosexual desire contained within the couple form. In The Power of the Dog, homosexual eros spills across the visual field, sweeping into its circuit the ranch hands, whom we find horsing around at the lake as if they have stepped out of Duncan Grant’s 1911 canvas Bathing, or a Walt Whitman poem. (The point wasn’t lost on veteran Western actor Sam Elliott, who noted with disgust that “They’re all running around in chaps and no shirts. There’s all these allusions to homosexuality throughout the fucking movie.”)
That this ambient homo-eros is premised on the repression of actual homosexuality is revealed in a scene that does not appear in the novel. In a hidden glade, we learn that Phil keeps a stash of physique magazines, with the name Bronco Henry (however implausibly) written, in a neat schoolboy hand, on the cover. Teacher and student share in an encrypted homosexual desire. Through a logic of reversal we know too well, Phil’s homophobia is the outcome of his repression, and this holds true for a masculinity the film shows to be essentially defensive.
This discovery sets in motion the string of events through which toxic masculinity will be hoisted by its own petard.
The agent of this unmasking is Rose’s son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), the film’s most mysterious character. Out of place among the cowboys, Peter seems to have wandered in from the 21st century, a time-traveling envoy of Gen Z. In striking contrast to Phil, Peter’s gender appears not to be based in repression, shame, or nostalgic idealization. While he is at first taken aback by Phil’s homophobic taunts, he does not respond to Phil’s later admonitions to wear boots or to not “let your ma make a sissy out of you.”
For generations of gay men terrorized into masculine compliance—those of us who internalized, however unsuccessfully, the imperative to become the man Phil entreats Peter to be—Phil’s gender may be more intelligible than Peter’s, since repression is a logic we understand. But that logic no longer seems to hold for Peter, as played by Smit-McPhee. (Appearing at a flurry of public events with his girlfriend, Smit-McPhee may be the Harry Styles—or the Timothée Chalamet—of the Western.)
The generational paradigm shift becomes clear in a scene that also marks the turning point in the two men’s relationship: Arriving back at the ranch in a stiff new pair of jeans, Peter walks with his distinctive delicacy before the line of cowboys, who wolf whistle and call out “faggot” and “Nancy.” Rather than being defiant or ashamed, Peter appears unmoved by their harassment. He returns the way he has come without modifying his gait or his route. It is at this moment that Phil gains a new respect for him.
Harassment aside, the men’s assessment of Peter’s sexuality is one we are likely to share. In my casual discussions with friends about the film, I found that most assumed Peter’s homosexuality goes without saying. When Peter tells Rose about his new friend at school—a friend he certainly won’t be bringing to the ranch—it is hard not to hear in his recounting the incipience of a homosexuality the boy himself may still need to discover.
The secret of the Western is that its mythology nurtures a queer fantasy, hiding in plain sight.
However, it turns out Peter is not so naive. Here we arrive at what may be the most mysterious feature of The Power of the Dog, at least to its gay viewers. Peter knows how to interpret Phil’s stashed physique magazines and his comment that Bronco Henry “taught me to use my eyes in ways that other people can’t.” Indeed, Peter sees things quite as clearly as Phil and Henry do—perceiving, for example, the titular dog in the mountains. But in a film that outs the cowboy myth, is this noncowboy himself gay? Is he (befitting his Gen Z sensibility) asexual? Or is he (with his penchant for cruel experiments) on the spectrum of psychopathy? Are these things interchangeable, variations on a theme? That such category confusion is possible is due to the nebulous status of homosexuality in this imaginary.
Savage’s novel, published two years before Stonewall, leaves the homosexual subtext between the lines, which fits its historical circumstances. Some half a century after gay liberation, what does such discretion serve in a cinematic adaptation? If we presume Peter is gay, we share this presumption with the film’s characters, who, in 1925, can only abide such knowledge as an open secret, which is to say, within a regime in which homosexuality exists in the shadow realm of connotation. A moment ago, I argued that it was Phil who embodied the era of the closet, and Peter something more contemporary. But it seems not only homosexual desire but also its closeting is contagious, having infected the film’s own system of representation.
If Peter is gay, the movie also makes good on the (phobic) folk wisdom that what a gay boy loves best of all is his mother. The boy, at the cusp of sexual adulthood, chooses the Mother over the erotic thrill of hot sex. Or perhaps Peter is not into cowboys; maybe Phil is not his type.
But Phil is our type, the film’s type, the only type on offer, the type on which the film has lavished two hours of its attention. Campion and cinematographer Ari Wegner flip the script on the male gaze of classical Hollywood, inserting Cumberbatch in the lineage of Campion’s naked avatars of brutish masculinity, including Harvey Keitel in The Piano and Mark Ruffalo in In the Cut. If this has the salutary effect of making the film’s gaze female, it does so on the condition of preserving its heterosexuality. In the scene where Peter watches Phil undress by the lake, the spectacle of the naked Cumberbatch is offered as an occasion for the spectator’s visual pleasure.
But the film does not attribute this pleasure to Peter, whose potential desire for Phil remains textually invisible. We can only project it, in the manner of slash fiction, as gay viewers have been well trained to do by the Western itself. Gay looking remains unmarked, haunting the scene as a speculative potentiality while appearing nowhere within it.
My point is not that the film is not explicit about sex, though that is certainly true. Sex is displaced onto animals and metaphors: the much-noted castration of the bulls; Phil’s finger deflowering a paper rose; his hands stroking and braiding rawhide rope. Compellingly haptic, the film could hardly be accused of lacking sensuality. My point is that, even as the film makes homosexual desire central to its narrative, it cannot seem to let it land, keeping it either repressed (as in the case of Phil) or spectral and indistinct.
At its suspenseful climax—spoilers to follow—The Power of the Dog reprises the Code-era tradition of smoking as a substitute for sex. Phil, our Marlboro Man, throws Peter his rolling tobacco. The camera tracks back and forth between them, sharing in their proximity, as Peter passes the cigarette between his own lips and Phil’s, the closest they will ever come to a kiss.
But the musical score, full of foreboding, has raced ahead of any erotic meaning, anticipating the murder to which the scene now seems to serve merely as a prelude. Moments of screen time later, Phil is dead. If cigarette smoking, in the Code era, marked the sex that couldn’t be shown, here the possibility is foreclosed by the fact that (thanks to Peter) Phil is handling a contaminated hide, rendering him untouchable. The murder plot stands in the place of homosexual sex, an all-too-familiar substitution. Smoking is reduced to a flat literality.
Admittedly, nobody has much sex in The Power of the Dog, which keeps its sexual metaphors uncorrelated to acts. The film’s single sexual encounter, between Rose and George, is heard through the wall by Phil, whose disgust is the only perspective we are offered. Having deflated every erotic possibility, the film’s closing shot offers us a chaste and uninspiring kiss between the same pair, this time observed by Peter from his bedroom window.
We are left to wonder if this is what Peter labored for, what he killed for: the staid and staged convention of the Hollywood kiss. Can it be that this marriage of convenience is Peter’s—and the film’s—only erotic denouement? Strange that a figure of heterosexual coupling, a euphemism from the classical era, should be invested with such conclusive force, as if restoring the momentarily troubled order. No wonder Peter pushes the queer murder weapon, a contaminated rope, back under the bed. (The resonance with Hitchcock’s 1948 Rope—urtext of cinematic closeting and the displacement of homosexual desire onto murder—is as apt as it is probably unintentional.)
Peter seemed to refuse the toxic masculinity mythologized in the Western and based in repression. But in a film that has trouble bringing the homosexuality it posits into focus, it would seem he has liberated Rose from the vice grip of toxic masculinity only by repeating that very repression. Unless, that is, Peter is the harbinger of an entirely new regime, one in which there is nothing to repress: a regime of postsexuality. Either way, the chaste kiss at the end between Rose and George is the last cliché left standing, the only remaining signifier of a desire the film has all but obliterated.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.