Entertainment

'The Power of the Dog' Is the Film That Could Win Netflix Its First Best Picture Oscar

Jane Campion's dissection of the American West is a triumph.

Netflix
Netflix
Netflix

The mythology of the American West is laden with images of masculinity. From John Wayne to Clint Eastwood, it’s a world where the clanking of spurs and leather conjures up a male ideal of tough, heterosexual heroism. On the surface, Phil Burbank, played by Benedict Cumberbatch in Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog-which is being released in theaters November 17 before making its way to Netflix December 1-would look like that kind of man. He’s unbathed and unrepentant. He calls his brother George (Jesse Plemons) “fatso.” He worships his departed mentor, a man named Bronco Henry, like a god.

Phil Burbank is a man who constructed his own mythology, one which comes tumbling down over the course of Campion’s masterful film, based on the 1967 novel by Thomas Savage. It’s an epic about the way the male id can crush everyone it touches, anchored by a brilliant masquerade of a performance by Cumberbatch, his best yet.

Phil and George have been running their wealthy parents’ ranch for 25 years when the story begins in 1925 Montana. They ride into the small town where Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), a widow, runs the local inn with help from her delicate and meticulous son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who recreates flowers from his mother’s garden using paper. His fake buds are so lovely that Rose puts them out as decoration on the dinner table, where they are immediately the subject of ire from Phil. He targets Peter for his effeminacy, leaving Rose crying at the end of the night. Whereas Phil believes he was delivering hard and necessary truths, George stays behind to comfort Rose.

Netflix
Netflix
Netflix

It’s just a short while later that George brings Rose back to the ranch as his bride, and Phil begins to insidiously and methodically torture Rose, getting under her skin as she caves under the pressure George puts on her entering an unfamiliar monied world. Phil sees her as both a social climber and an unwelcome feminine presence further preventing his softer brother from embracing his rustic qualities. Rose just wants peace. But the dynamics start to shift when Peter arrives on summer vacation, and Phil sees someone new he can mold in his own image. But unlike Phil, Peter is confident in his own skin, and is unwilling to let a tyrant determine his family’s happiness.

To say much more about the plot would be giving too much away. Campion lets the dynamics between these people simmer with the help of the beat of Jonny Greenwood’s guitar and string-heavy score, until the tale reaches a conclusion that takes the audience completely by surprise. Having seen the film twice now, the clues are all there, but you are initially so beguiled you miss them.

Cumberbatch’s penchant for playing the British upper crust works in his favor as Phil. Once you peel away the layers of grime with which he coats himself, he might otherwise be an educated dandy. He’s a man who graduated Yale Phi Beta Kappa, but pretends as if he can’t grasp basic language. It’s a balancing act that Cumberbatch pulls off with a mix of menace and deeply hidden grace that only reveals itself at the most pivotal moments. He’s matched beat for beat by Smit-McPhee, who wields his lithe body like a weapon, his big eyes always calculating. At times it looks like the mountain winds of New Zealand, which stands in for Montana, are going to sweep him away, using his billowing shirt as a sail. Peter has a coldness that evolves into the role of protector when he’s with his mother, who Dunst plays with a resolve that evaporates under the strain of the mental weaponry Phil uses against her. Dunst’s crumbling work should finally get her a long overdue first Oscar nomination.

Like Phil, who masks his deep discomfort with insults and braggadocio, The Power of the Dog waits to reveal its true nature. Greenwood’s music signals that something’s afoot, while the rich visuals captured by cinematographer Ari Wegner lure you into the vast, treacherous landscape of the mountainous West. Campion has made a film that’s deeply erotic without any sex scenes, one that teases with its gaze before it ultimately takes your breath away.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.

Entertainment

With One Orgy, 'Queer as Folk' Sets a New TV Standard

Peacock's reboot of the gay drama is finally giving queer disabled people some of the representation they've been seeking on television.

Peacock
Peacock
Peacock

Everything is ready for the orgy. The snacks and drinks are prepared, the disco ball is hanging, and there are mechanical lifts to help people in and out of their wheelchairs. As a few guests mingle and a go-go dancer gyrates, Marvin (played by Eric Graise) rolls onto the stage in his wheelchair to act as emcee. With the help of a sign-language interpreter, he kicks things off by announcing, “I know you’re all dying to tear each other’s clothes off, or to have your attendants take them off for you.” This is no ordinary orgy; it’s “#F*CK Disabled People,” the titular orgy from Episode 4 of Queer as Folk.

The Queer as Folk reboot, released this month on Peacock, is already far more diverse than the versions of the show that came before it: more racially diverse, more body types, more genders, and multiple disabled actors in key roles. Episode 4 pushes the envelope beyond almost anything seen on network TV. It’s the kind of representation that disabled viewers-and actors-have been dreaming about, centring on a queer disabled orgy and one stunningly beautiful sex scene.

Ryan O’Connell, who both co-writes and acts in the series, recognized the reboot’s potential when it came to better representing the lives of queer disabled people like himself. Key to this was sharing the screen with multiple disabled actors, including recurring appearances by Graise. Marvin’s presence had already sold O’Connell on the show when he began meeting with series developer Stephen Dunn, who had previously directed the coming-of-age movie Closet Monster. “He was like, ‘I also want you to star in it too,’ and I was like, ‘Wait, you want two disabled people?'” says O’Connell.

O’Connell grew up enjoying the sexy, soapy escapades of the American Queer as Folk, Showtime’s five-season adaptation of the British series of the same name. Amid widespread bigotry and the AIDS epidemic, the two popular shows offered a rare picture of happy gay life. But O’Connell longed for a reflection of himself on the screen. That impulse eventually led him to create Special, the Netflix sitcom about a gay man with cerebral palsy seeking love, sex, and friendship. Queer as Folk gives him another special opportunity: to tell sexy, soapy, positive LGBTQIA+ stories with an ensemble cast wherein he wouldn’t be the only disabled character. “I was so shocked in a way that was truly depressing, but it’s so rare as disabled people that we get any kind of inclusion whatsoever, let alone that there’s two of us,” O’Connell says. “Immediately, writing for the reboot, I felt a sense of ease.”For Graise, working on a show written by O’Connell was a “dream come true.” He continues, “I’d always said there needs to be a disabled person in the writers’ room, but I had no idea how significant it would be and how much it meant to me. And even Stephen Dunn has a disabled friend who Marvin is very much inspired by.”

Marvin is outgoing, even wild in his energy. When we meet him at a bar in the first episode of the series, he acts like he owns the place, flirting and serving up wicked verbal jabs with equal ease. Before we get to know him better, O’Connell’s shy, sheltered Julian Beaumont seems to fade into the background by comparison. Initially, he serves mostly as a foil to his more outgoing older brother, Brodie (Devin Way), who, in many ways, is the chaotic core around which the rest of the ensemble orbits. During the first three episodes, the brothers, along with Brodie’s on-again, off-again lover Noah (Johnny Sibilly), convert their shared New Orleans home into the epic party house known as “Ghost Fag.” It’s Ghost Fag that attracts Marvin, in the fourth episode, with the idea of hosting a queer disabled orgy. We don’t learn as much about Marvin’s background, but it’s clear he’s made himself a cornerstone of the LGBTQIA+ community despite the everyday ableism he faces.

Beyond the surface differences, Julian and Marvin couldn’t be more divergent. In addition to their differing disabilities (Marvin, like Graise, is a double amputee), they come from disparate economic classes and have radically contrasting outlooks on life. Julian protects his vulnerability with an introverted lifestyle and a carefully cultivated routine, while Marvin hides his behind a boisterous exterior. Just like real life, not all members of a marginalized group get along, or even have very much in common.

“I don’t ever try to feel the burden of representation because there’s no point-you have to write from a place of truth,” says O’Connell, who wrote Episode 4 with Alyssa Taylor. “It was really fun creatively to have these two disabled characters who are so wildly different from each other in how they conduct themselves in their relationship to disability and to sex and all those things, but also I think in Episode 4 it was really interesting to show their commonalities.”

Peacock
Peacock
Peacock

Both Marvin and Julian get laid over the course of the episode, but even before their clothes come off, the orgy scene fills the screen with something seldom seen on TV: disabled people in all their sexual glory. The scenario was inspired by a 2015 disabled sex party co-hosted in Toronto by Andrew Gurza, the show’s disability awareness consultant. After Gurza joined QaF, he mentioned the party in the writers’ room. “Mine was a lot more tame than this should be,” Gurza recalls telling them. “I’d like this to be a lot racier.”

Gurza even appears in a sex scene during the episode. “Being together on the show was an amazing moment,” says O’Connell, who cites Gurza as one of his inspirations. “He’s so honest and demands that his voice be heard and makes no apologies for that, and I try to do the same.”

As the orgy continues, both characters hook up with sex workers. It’s clear the actors and creators wanted to affirm that sex work is work. “It’s incredibly difficult work, not only the physical labour but the emotional space you have to hold for somebody to make them feel seen and heard and not judged. It makes me happy to showcase their work in a more positive light,” O’Connell notes.

Sachin Bhatt, who plays Ali, the sex worker hired by Marvin, agrees. He adds that his role is an all-too-rare example of a Southeast Asian man being sexual on-screen. “Anyone who’s not a cisgender, white male has many more mountains to climb,” Bhatt says. “So for me it was really exciting to play this sex worker because they wouldn’t typically cast an Indian for this role.”

Peacock
Peacock
Peacock

While their relationship is transactional to begin with, Ali is respectful, playful, and caring throughout his interactions with Marvin. However, his feelings for his client intensify during Episode 4 as the pair connect alone in a room at Ghost Fag. “We bonded instantly,” Bhatt recalls of Graise. “It was very important to both of us that we get the intimacy and the vulnerability right.”

For Graise, who also appeared on Netflix’s Locke & Key, that actorly connection made the sequence what it is. “We spent a lot of time kiki’ing off-set and discussing what we wanted out of this scene for both of us. The scene wasn’t just about me. It’s also Ali exploring Marvin’s body in a way that he’s never explored with anyone before, and his insecurities and trepidations about interacting with a disabled body.”

Unlike previous interactions shown between them, Ali asks to top Marvin this time-and to interact with his body in new ways. “Can I touch your legs?” Ali asks. This was influenced by Graise’s own life, as someone he dated for three years realized he’d never touched Graise’s legs. After some tender caressing, Marvin wraps his thighs around Ali and they make love. Graise’s background as a dancer is evident in his elegant movement throughout the scene, which contrasts with some of the polished, more “Hollywood”-style sequences that appear elsewhere in the series.

“Sachin and Eric really fucking landed that plane,” O’Connell says. “It was everything I want in a sex scene, which is that it was vulnerable, it was tender, it was awkward, and it was sexy.”Beyond the new Queer As Folk, it’s rare for media to let disabled people be either queer or sexy. O’Connell cited a few other examples, such as Jillian Mercado’s role in The L Word: Generation Q or the work of playwright and actor Ryan J. Haddad, but it’s sparse overall. With one episode, Queer as Folk has set a high bar for other shows to follow, and the series as a whole demonstrates how disabled actors can portray real, complex, and flawed human beings.

“A cognitive dissonance happens when we watch things on our TV screens, where, all of a sudden, we want things to be simplified,” O’Connell says. “Isn’t it art’s job to reflect humanity accurately?

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Kit O’Connell is the Digital Editor at the Texas Observer, and lives in Austin, Texas with their spouse and two cats. Follow them @KitOConnell.

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