If The Power of the Dog needed a little momentum after the SAG Awards, Sam Elliott may have just handed it over on a silver platter. This week, a clip of Elliott on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast went viral, of Elliott blasting the movie, and director Jane Campion, for her depiction of ranch life in Montana. He calls the film a “piece of sh-t”, refers to Campion as “this woman”, adds that he likes her “previous work” but still calls her “this woman”, and wonders, essentially, what gives her, a woman from New Zealand, the right to tell a story about men in Montana. You can listen to the clip here:
Marc Maron: Did you see Power of the Dog, did you see that movie?— Jonathan (@jonathanmb32) February 28, 2022
Sam Elliott: Yeah do you wanna talk about that piece of shit?
Marc: [ohh noo] You didnâ€™t like that one?
Sam: Fuck no. pic.twitter.com/BGdOd6scwe
Sam Elliott is in some of my favorite movies, he’s in Justified, but man, this is NOT a good look for Wade Garrett. You don’t like the movie? Fine. But he seems to take issue with what the film essentially is, which is a revisionist Western centered on themes of toxic masculinity and the ugly roots of a particular brand of American myth. I don’t want to say that he didn’t get it, because I think he does, he definitely sees the homoeroticism in how the cowboys are depicted in Dog, but it’s also okay to just say, “This isn’t for me. I’m not the audience for that.”
Instead, Elliott comes across as an old man yelling at clouds at best, and a sexist, homophobic asshole at worst. The two main things he takes issue with are Jane Campion, New Zealand Woman, making a movie about American men, and the homoeroticism in the story. But Dog is based on a book by Thomas Savage, an American man who grew up on a ranch in Montana in the 1920s, and was also a closeted gay man. Dog is based on the author’s lived experience. Did everything that happens in Dog happen to Savage? Assuredly not. But it’s the fruit of a specific environment he was steeped in.
So what does Jane Campion know about ranching in Montana? What does Denis Villeneuve know about mining spice in space? Or Ridley Scott know about fourteenth century France? Or Steven Spielberg know about New York City in the 1960s? What a stupid question that is, to assume that a filmmaker must have direct, first-hand experience of a subject to make a film about it. Sam Elliott knows better. HE DOES. He’s been around long enough to know better, but more importantly, the story is based on a book by an author who DOES know about those things.
Obviously, Elliott isn’t interested in deconstructing the American Western myth. He isn’t into revisionist Westerns, which is whatever, not everyone has to like the same stuff. But there is no ONE way to tell a story. Yes, Texas, and other ranching states, are full of family ranches that nurture multiple generations, like the one depicted on 1883, the historical drama Elliott stars in. My mom’s side of the family comes from one of those families. I know the kind of family ranch and ranching family Elliott is referring to. But that’s not the only experience people have of ranching and ranching families.
Some people do have the experience of being queer and forced to hide it because Ranchlandia is FULL of people with that attitude, that they don’t want to see anything that isn’t nuclear family, happy heteronormativity. (Never forget that Matthew Shepard was murdered in Laramie, Wyoming, the heart of Ranchlandia.) And some people see the harm in the Western myth and the perpetuation of a certain set of stereotypes surrounding machismo and masculinity and manifest destiny, and they do art about it. You don’t have to like that art, but it’s no less valid because it challenges the kind of, er, wholesome family stories told in shows like Yellowstone and 1883. (Those shows are full of schemers and liars and backstabbers, and Taylor Sheridan, the creator of both, is a Texas boy who grew up on a ranch, but he has also been critical in the past of the unyielding nature of those Western stereotypes and how destructive they can be to modern men. Watch Hell or High Water sometime.)
As for filming the movie in New Zealand and calling it Montana, who the f-ck cares? Movies get filmed all over the place for all sorts of reasons, and again, Sam Elliott knows this. But Jane Campion and Benedict Cumberbatch and pretty much everyone connected with Dog has said on the record they filmed in New Zealand for the wide-open spaces that Montana no longer has. And never mind that entire point, because a lot of classic Westerns were filmed in Europe, so again, who the f-ck cares where something is filmed? Or does Elliott hate A Fistful of Dollars because it was shot in Spain and Italy, by Sergio Leone, an Italian man who grew up in Rome? Something tells me he probably doesn’t, but I really hope someone follows up and asks Elliott how he feels about spaghetti Westerns. Or do those get a pass because they typically depict typically macho, strong silent types who only ever make eyes at women and solve everything with a gun?