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The Power of the Dog: Benedict Cumberbatch stars in film adaptation of Thomas Savage book

by Brandon Judell

Kodi Smit-McPhee and Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Power of the Dog'
Kodi Smit-McPhee and Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Power of the Dog'  

"Although the facts are not widely known, Thomas Savage, though he married and had children, was himself a closeted gay man who carried on a long adulterous gay affair that he kept secret from his family. In fact, Savage and his male lover were even 'married' in a 'commitment ceremony' performed in Massachusetts." (Montana Standard, July 7, 2013)

Verifying the above, a close friend of Savage's daughter recalled for the Bay Area Reporter via email, "Yes, and for part of their childhood, his lover lived with the family. It was crazy. Then when his wife died, [Savage] went on his gay way, and found a blood sister who was a lesbian, living in a craggy west coast habitat, just like his in Maine!"

So why should you care?

In 1967, a highly praised novel with a "sensitive" autobiographical core came out. It sold close to 1000 hardbound copies. That was The Power of the Dog by the same Thomas Savage. However, thanks to the book's re-release in 2003 with a celebratory afterword by Brokeback Mountain's Annie Proulx, the book started winning its battle with neglect.

Now comes Jane Campion's adaptation on Netflix and in theaters, a film that has been called a "masterpiece," "a twisty psychological thriller," and "an elegant, sometimes unnerving accomplishment" by that Metacritic crowd.

Consequently, there's no doubt The Power of the Dog will become permanently enshrined in the gay canon maybe just a shelf or two below James Baldwin's Giovanni's Room and Gore Vidal's The City and the Pillar. A great film can do that to a worthy book. A rotten one will achieve the opposite (e.g. Bonfire of the Vanities). In fact, this "western" in its various formats has topped Amazon's LGBTQ best-seller list for several weeks now.

The three novels mentioned above all deal with closeted cases who wind up hurting themselves as much as they hurt others. Proulx, in fact, insists that Savage "has created one of the most compelling and vicious characters in American literature."

Benedict Cumberbatch, who has inserted himself totally into the portrayal of Phil Burbank, the appropriately disparaged lost soul, notes, "It's a tragedy from his point of view. Actually, he's a man in great pain. He's so lost in his masculinity, in his sort of veneer of masculinity."

Clearly, while it's still not that easy, it was even harder to be a gay cowboy in the Montana of the 1920s.

The book begins with Phil and his far quieter brother George (Jesse Plemons), the owners of the biggest ranch in the valley, doing to steers what must be done. While George did the roping, "Phil always did the castrating; first he sliced off the cup of the scrotum and tossed it aside." The testicles were then tossed into the fire . . . "and exploded like huge popcorn . . . . Some men, it was said, ate them with a little salt and pepper. 'Mountain oysters,' Phil called them with that sly grin of his, and suggested to young ranch hands that if they were fooling around with the girls they'd do well to eat them, themselves."

Don't worry! The film does not start off with that scene.



Phil, who graduated with honors from college, is so careful of defending his "toxic masculinity," as Jane Champion has labeled it, only takes a bath once a month, and none during the winter months. He sleeps in the same bed as his brother, whom he calls, "Fatso!" He's also anti-Semitic, anti-Native Americans, is not fond of the female sex, and boy, oh, boy, did he hate queers: "Phil hated how they walked and how they talked."

This character, who, by the way, is based on Savage's real-life uncle, does have his fondnesses: elk liver, watching the younger ranch hands bath in a lake, reading books of philosophy, and spewing forth his memories of the legendary Bronco Henry, whose saddle he constantly fondles.

As for the rather socially inept "plodder," George, he one day finds a wife in the widow Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), who runs an inn of sorts. Her doctor husband had committed suicide (The book explains why.) She has a 16-year-old son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and little else.


Kirsten Dunst in 'The Power of the Dog'  

This loner, this bullied lad, seems not to be in control of his body as he walks across the screen. He's like a calf just pulled from his mother, testing out his legs. He has a slight lisp. He cuts out photos from magazines for his fantasy scrapbook, makes paper flowers, and cuts up bunnies he kills to learn about their body functions. He's going to be a doctor like his dad, whose body he found a-hanging one day. Peter is based on the author, who in later life recalled riding about his Rolls Royce and wearing lavender gloves.

The wide-eyed Smit-McPhee, who knows how to smolder when he needs to, says he learned a lot from playing Peter.

"We don't all necessarily have to fit in a box and that's okay, and we can be confident about that. I'm a very feminine guy and that's something I embrace in my life, and I think it gives way to my artistic side and creativity. It's something I have had to learn to embrace and love about myself. I saw that reflected in Peter in different ways."

Well, the new family moves in with Phil, who, as we've suspected, will try to make life for Rose and Peter a living hell, but then ...

The less you know of this exhilarating story, the better. In fact, only after viewing the film a second time did I realize what had really occurred. See the film first, then let the novel supply some fill-ins for you.

Both the book and the film lay out all of the clues but in a highly subtle manner, that is until the very last paragraph of the novel in which Savage explains in too concrete terms what has occurred beforehand. The explanation seems pasted on, and is the only weak moment of a work that you will want to read more than once.

As for Jane Campion's triumph, the direction, the acting, the cinematography, the music, and the screenplay are all flawless ... but this, of course, is Thomas Savage's triumph most of all.

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