(A bit cryptic, but still kinda spoilery)
The frontier has always been a story of progress…
Turner’s old “meeting place between savagery and civilization” isn’t supposed to be a zero-sum game; it is virtually always understood to be a transitory phase, an early chapter in the story of progress. For those that count as people in such stories, the frontier is a challenge to be met and a potential which must be brought to fruition. The story of the frontier will end when the savagery recedes, replaced once and for all with the civilization. The frontier is full of dangerous animals, untamed rivers, and wild Indians, but it bends towards a time when the only wolves and the bears left will be in the zoos, safe crossings will have been forged upon every river, and the Indians have all been placed on reservations, their children hauled off to be white-washed in the boarding schools. The frontier isn’t supposed to last. It is supposed to end. It is supposed to end in civilization.
But what if the frontier doesn’t want to end?
What if the agents of that frontier do not fade into America’s past, to become mere fables of a bygone era? What if those agents do not walk calmly back out and into the wilderness at the end of the movie, as John Wayne does at the end of The Searchers, knowing as his character did, that he character didn’t belong safe inside a well kept home. What if one of those agents insist on sticking around to crash the dinner parties of the civilized world? Worse yet, what if they want to teach the youth about the ways of the wilderness?
This, I gather, is the central question of “The Power of the Dog.”
One might, of course, be inclined to put another question ahead of this one, a question about the sexuality of men who live much of their lives so far from the company of women, but of course this too is a question about what people do well beyond the reach of ordinary virtue and what happens when someone from that world brings their wild ways back into the world of ordinary virtues.
Folks may have grown accustomed to thinking of cowboys as the manliest of men, but there are plenty of reasons to doubt whether that means what we might imagine it does within our safe and civilized – and very hetero-normative – world. It’s damned uncomfortable question; what are those cowboy’s doing out there? The last major movie to ask that question broke a mountain. This one crashes our dinner party.
And then it wants to spend time with our son!
It might seem incongruous, the possibility that the cowboyest of cowboys in this story could be so, so very not like we imagine cowboys to be, but this too just makes the central villain of the story that much more of a threat to the civilization we might have thought he helped to create. He didn’t vanish with the frontier, and he welcome the changes of the civilization he helped to create. The man doesn’t smell right. He doesn’t talk right. Maybe, he doesn’t even fuck right!
What the Hell is to be done about him?
Yeah, you’ll just have to watch the movie to find out.