When Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog graced the big screen this fall, many viewers may have been expecting a conventional Western. After all, the bones are there: One brother, Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), rough and rugged; the other, George (Jesse Plemons), formal and shy; both trying to run a ranch in Montana, both unable to communicate with the other. Then there are the interlopers –– George’s fragile new wife, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and her aloof, observant son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). But the perception of Rose and Peter as ignorant outsiders, ill-equipped for the rigors of ranch life, gradually begins to falter, even amid Phil’s mockery of his brother’s new family.
Instead, the homoerotic tension between Phil and his new nephew, Peter, takes precedence. While Phil hides his homosexuality and bullies Peter for his perceived effeminacy and flamboyance, Peter remains utterly cool and confident, eventually wearing down his step-uncle’s nastiness. In the end, it’s Peter who is the greatest threat to Phil’s sense of himself as all-knowing and ultra-masculine.
The Power of the Dog becomes first and foremost a movie about masculinity, the price of belonging, and the burden of being an outsider. For those who enjoyed this surprising subversion of Western themes, here are seven more films like it.
East of Eden (1955)
Elia Kazan’s overblown Technicolor rendition of California author John Steinbeck’s Cain-and-Abel story is at times grating. But the conflict between Cal (James Dean) and his favored brother, Aron (Richard Davalos), against the backdrop of the pre-war Central Valley turns a classic sibling rivalry into something more complex. As in The Power of the Dog, we have an outsider figure. In this case, it’s the hotheaded Cal, who wins over viewers as he is constantly vying for his father’s (Raymond Massey) love even when faced with brutal skepticism from him and outright rejection from his estranged mother (Jo Van Fleet). With James Dean tapping into his potential as an up-and-coming actor, East of Eden is a colorful, melodramatic timepiece, replete with romance and yearning for a lost way of life on a California ranch.
The Big Country (1958)
When James McKay (Gregory Peck), a cultivated Easterner, goes West to visit his fiancée, Patricia Terrill (Carroll Baker), he refuses to be drawn into competition with Steve Leech (Charlton Heston), the rival for Patricia’s affections. He also avoids direct conflict with the vicious neighboring Hannassey family, much to his future father-in-law, the Major’s (Charles Bickford), disapproval. Though McKay eventually brokers peace by buying the Big Muddy, a ranch with crucial access to water that belongs to school teacher, Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons), he must outmaneuver his foes in a shootout and reconsider his engagement to the petulant Patricia. Peck’s cerebral performance as the seemingly fish-out-of-water McKay prevents Wyler’s beautifully shot epic from lapsing into cliché or adhering too rigorously to Western tropes. For once, it is an Easterner who saves the day.
The Piano (1993)
Campion’s mysterious magnum opus toys with the ever-present notion of women as outsiders, particularly on the frontier. When the mute Ada McGrath (Holly Hunter) is sold into marriage by her father to an uptight New Zealand farmer, Alisdair Stewart (Sam Neill), she clings to both her young daughter, Flora (Anna Paquin), and her piano for support. Struggling to adapt to her wild and wooded surroundings, she attempts to teach the illiterate John Baines (Harvey Keitel) to play piano. When it turns out that Baines wants something more, Ada finds herself intrigued by the possibility of love, but her husband is outraged by her deviation from marital norms and commits a devastating act. Hunter wonderfully captures her character’s transformation from a cruelly silenced bride to a woman capable of both love and speech.
Brokeback Mountain (2005)
Ang Lee’s epic love story, set in 1960s Montana, features Jake Gyllenhaal as the open-hearted Jack Twist and Heath Ledger as the shy and wary Ennis del Mar. Jack and Ennis’s romance becomes strained due to ever-present homophobia and crushingly limited notions of what it means to be a man in the 20th-century West. Jack and Ennis, both outsiders masquerading as cowboys and family men, nevertheless attempt to bear these extraordinary burdens at the cost of broken marriages and other family relationships. While Lee’s tragic epic isn’t for the faint of heart, his disarming glimpse into the long-term effects of sexual repression in a heteronormative society is well worth watching.
No Country for Old Men (2007)
In the dry and unforgiving West, Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) attempts to track down psychopathic hitman, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who, in turn, has been hired to recover money from Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin). Moss has impulsively stolen the funds from a failed drug deal. With Chigurh hot on his tail and an anxious wife, Carla Jean (Kelly Macdonald), waiting at home, Brolin’s character must deal with the brutal consequences of his actions in an environment devoid of morality or inhibition. Here, as in The Power of the Dog, vengeance and creeping lawlessness prevails.
Jane Eyre (2011)
While this Gothic classic doesn’t bear an obvious comparison to The Power of the Dog, Mia Wasikowska’s performance as the titular character allows viewers to sympathize with Jane’s absolute aloneness as she arrives to work at Thornfield, intermittently inhabited by the Byronic Mr. Rochester (Michael Fassbender). Jane, ever the outsider, challenges Rochester’s egotism and bitterness while dealing with her own suspicions about the secretive household. Jane’s inner rebelliousness frequently clashes with her Calvinist education and her exposure to Rochester’s shallow class contemporaries, yet she refuses to compromise her dignity throughout. Unlike Rose in The Power of the Dog, she is more than a match for the terrors of the house, even when she must reconcile her love for Rochester with the secrets he has been hiding. Cary Fukunaga’s camera frequently puts Jane at the mercy of natural elements, at odds with both the English wilderness and a wholly indifferent society.
God’s Own Country (2017)
The lonely and angst-ridden Johnny Saxby (Josh O’Connor) struggles to maintain his father’s farm in Yorkshire and resorts to alcohol and casual sex to pass the time. He is rattled by the arrival of Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu), a Romanian migrant worker whose benevolence he initially rejects. However, Johnny and Gheorghe soon fall in love, not simply staving off the loneliness of the Yorkshire moors but finding respite in an environment chronically absent of care. Their relationship is put to the test by the illness of Johnny’s father (Ian Hart) and his grandmother’s (Gemma Jones) newfound reliance on her grandson to help run the farm. Director Francis Lee’s examination of Johnny and Gheorge’s conflicts and eventual reconciliation is not only erotically charged but full of respect for men who must make their way in a world often devoid of tenderness.