[Editor’s note: The following post contains some spoilers for “The Power of the Dog.”]
Sam Elliott, an actor who has built a career in Westerns that celebrate American masculinity, has taken issue with “The Power of the Dog,” a film that challenges the way Westerns celebrate American masculinity. While his recent comments on Marc Maron’s “WTF Podcast” reek of sexism and homophobia, the irony of his wild tirade is that he basically understood the point of the film — almost.
Directed by Jane Campion (whom Elliott gets to later), “The Power of the Dog” uses the Western form to explore the stifling ways expectations around masculinity inflict damage on the men tasked with upholding it. Judging from the sharp edge in his signature growl, Elliott is also a casualty of these restrictive rules around masculinity, as his vitriol at its unraveling would attest.
“You want to talk about that piece of shit?,” Elliott begins his tirade, before railing against an ad in the LA Times celebrating the film as “an evisceration of the American myth.”
“The evisceration of the American West?,” he continued. “They made it look like — what are all those dancers that those guys in New York who wear bowties and not much else. Remember them from back in the day?” (You can practically hear Maron gritting his teeth behind a wince when he offers “Chippendales” as an answer.)
“That’s what all these fucking cowboys in that movie look like,” Elliott said. “They’re all running around in chaps and no shirts. There’s all these allusions to homosexuality throughout the fucking movie.” Maron graciously steps in again to state the glaringly obvious: “I think that’s what the movie’s about.”
Based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage, “The Power of the Dog” follows two brothers, Phil (played in the film by Benedict Cumberbatch) and George (Jesse Plemons), who live on a ranch in Montana. Though close in their youth, the growing distance between the two men intensifies when George marries local widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst), who moves into the ranch with her teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). From Phil’s very first encounter with Peter, he singles out the boy’s swishy walk and gentle demeanor as ripe for ridicule, quickly establishing dominance and enforcing the rules of masculinity.
Phil is a perplexing and menacing presence to everyone in the house, and alcoholism takes its slow and exacting toll on Rose. Peter is harder to read, and his hatred of Phil slowly gives way to curiosity in a gorgeously slow burn. Peter begins accompanying the older cowboy on his daily ranch chores, observing and absorbing every proudly imparted lesson with a meticulous rigor. In the end, the student outsmarts the teacher, enacting a long simmering revenge plot on his former bully after lulling him into a false sense of brotherhood. The lessons of masculinity have been passed down, with the next iteration twisting it further into far more sinister ends.
While some viewers lamented that Campion’s film plays down the queerness that was more overt in Savage’s novel (the author, like Phil, was a closeted gay man), apparently it was far too much for Elliott. Though he makes careful note to call Campion a “brilliant director,” he also took issue with her filming in New Zealand.
“What the fuck does this woman — she’s a brilliant director by the way, I love her work, previous work — but what the fuck does this woman from down there, New Zealand, know about the American West?,” Elliott said. “And why in the fuck does she shoot this movie in New Zealand and call it Montana and say, ‘This is the way it was.'”
Now, Maron swears a lot on his podcast, it’s literally in the title. But the placement of that particular “What the fuck” right before the belittling phrasing of “this woman” screams of misogyny. The fact that he doesn’t even say Campion’s name the entire time is giving major Donald Trump “That woman from Michigan” energy.
Aside from his not-so-thinly-veiled sexism, Elliott’s point that Westerns should be filmed in the American West ignores the entire history of the genre about which he claims to be such an expert. From the dusty landscapes of Spain, where so many Spaghetti Westerns were filmed, to Canada standing in for Wyoming in “Brokeback Mountain,” shooting films set in the American West outside of America has been common practice for decades. In addition, the iconography of the American West has traveled around the world to shape international cinema, from John Ford’s influence on Akira Kurosawa to the 1960s-era Red Westerns produced by former Soviet countries.
With any luck, Sam Elliott represents the last of a dying mindset in Hollywood, one who thinks women should stick to making movies that don’t challenge the status quo. “The Power of the Dog” is the most nominated film at the Academy Awards this year, with all four stars nominated in the acting categories and Campion the clear frontrunner for winning Best Director. This non-sensical tirade, and the swift backlash it received from the film world, may well push on-the-fence voters into the Campion camp.
It certainly proves the slow-burn social commentary of “The Power of the Dog” has real bite to it after all.