Chronicling the internal and external struggles of Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), a gruff cowboy living and working at his family’s ranch in Montana, ‘The Power of the Dog’ is a Western drama film based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name. Directed by Jane Campion, the cerebral film expertly portrays rural American culture, toxic masculinity, and gender roles of the 1920s.
Through Phil’s interactions with George (Jesse Plemons), Rose (Kirsten Dunst), and Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), we find out crucial truths about his ideologies, traumas, and desires. In particular, Phil’s relationship with Bronco Henry makes many fans wonder about his sexuality. So, is Phil Burbank gay? Let’s find out. SPOILERS AHEAD.
Is Phil Burbank Gay in The Power of the Dog?
Although it is never mentioned out loud, Phil is most certainly gay in ‘The Power of the Dog.’ One arrives at this conclusion about his sexuality by looking closely at the ways in which he talks about and remembers his best friend, mentor, and idol Bronco Henry. Throughout the film, we see Phil singing Bronco’s praises to the other cowboys. He owes his successful livelihood to his best friend as Bronco taught him how to be a rancher; thus, Phil maintains a deep sense of gratitude towards Bronco even after his death.
However, as we dive deeper into Phil’s psyche, we realize that his relationship with Bronco goes beyond friendship. For example, when Phil overhears Rose and George making love, he immediately leaves the house in anger. However, he then proceeds to meticulously and lovingly wipe down Bronco’s saddle with oil. The fact that he promptly associates an intimate romantic act with Bronco’s memory suggests that Phil is romantically interested in his best friend.
Additionally, Savage’s personal life also sheds some light on Phil’s sexuality. Several reports claim that Savage, who was married and had children, was a closeted gay man. His works are often read from a queer lens and literary critics state that Savage addresses his sexual orientation through fiction because he could not embrace it in real life. Although Phil is partly based on Savage’s step-uncle, William Brenner, the novelist adds his own struggles with homosexuality to the character. Thus, Savage projects different parts of his psyche onto the characters of Phil and Peter.
One of the most pivotal scenes addressing Phil’s homosexuality is in a secluded glade by a pond. Choosing to stay away from the other cowboys who are swimming naked, Phil retreats to his corner of the forest. He takes out Bronco’s scarf — embroidered with the letters “BH” — from his pants and caresses his topless torso with it. Then, he seemingly masturbates using the scarf, dropping his tough persona and allowing himself to be vulnerable.
Thus, it becomes apparent that Phil’s hyper-masculine demeanor, penchant for bullying women and effeminate men, and aggressive abandonment of academia for a macho profession like ranching stem from his unresolved feelings pertaining to his sexuality and Bronco. Considering the novel and film’s backdrop of a homophobic and heteronormative society, it is understandable why Phil represses his sexual identity.
Later, when Phil grows close to Peter, the older man tells the younger one how Bronco saved his life up in the hills. Explaining how the weather had become terrifyingly cold, Phil reveals that Bronco pressed their bodies together for warmth. When Peter asks if they were naked, Phil laughs quietly. Considering that Phil is a man who does not mince words, his lack of negation can certainly be construed as an affirmation.
Interestingly, Peter, who is considered to be a “sissy,” is the only other person who is told about Phil’s intimate interaction with Bronco. It’s almost as though Phil hopes that Peter will understand that his sexuality does not diminish his manliness and grit. Moreover, Campion herself confirms Phil’s queerness without giving away too many spoilers.
When asked whether Phil’s toxic masculinity is a shield that he uses to combat certain truths about himself, the director stated, “Yeah. I mean, I think he’s [Phil] – that’s true. I think it’s a bit of both. And when we start to know that he is – actually admires the, you know, the life and way of men and despises any show of weakness or femininity or lies or pretense.”
She then added, “But we begin to understand there might be a deeper reason for it. That the secrets that Phil have had – have to be kept.” Cumberbatch is also of the opinion that Phil more or less came to terms with his sexuality after becoming close to Bronco. “I think what happened [between Phil and Bronco] was very consensual. I mean, that was definitely my view on it,” stated the actor.
“I think the torturous thing for him [Phil] is not being able to fully realize what that was and not having more than maybe one experience of some intimacy with this man [Bronco] and not really knowing what that is, but still feeling it in his body and not being able to explore it unless he’s on his own, which is a very rare moment.” So, we can safely assume that Phil Burbank is gay in ‘The Power of the Dog.’ The film is in fact an attempt to capture his negotiations with his social, professional, and sexual identities.