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Film / The Power of the Dog

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"When my father passed, I wanted nothing more than my mother's happiness. For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?"
Peter Gordon

The Power of the Dog is a 2021 Western directed by Jane Campion, based on the novel of the same name by Thomas Savage. It stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kirsten Dunst, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Thomasin McKenzie, and Keith Carradine.

Phil Burbank (Cumberbatch) is a powerful rancher in Montana in 1925. One day, his world is turned upside down when his younger brother George (Plemons) marries Rose (Dunst), a widowed proprietress, and moves her and her son Peter (Smit-McPhee) onto the ranch. Phil initially tries to drive them away through mockery and intimidation, but eventually appears to take Peter under his wing with motivations that may be sinister but also hide untold secrets and the possibility of love.

The film premiered at the 2021 Venice International Film Festival. It was released in select theaters on November 17, 2021, and then on Netflix on December 1, 2021. The trailer can be seen here.

This film provides examples of:

  • Alas, Poor Villain: As awful as Phil could be, his death is quite pitiful, being killed by the one person he showed real affection for. Not to mention, because his intentions are quite vague, we have no idea just how much he deserved this fate. And even if he did, the sight of a horribly sick Phil seeking out Peter to give him a gift, unaware that he poisoned him, is heartbreaking.
  • The Alcoholic: Rose gradually falls into alcoholism as her treatment at the hands of Phil grows worse.
  • Ambiguous Disorder:
    • Peter's awkwardness and sensitivity go a hair beyond normal. He addresses his mother by her first name and almost never shows any emotion. He also has a tendency to stim by running his thumb along the teeth of a comb.
    • Lola, the servant girl at the Burbank's house, sounds and acts quite childish for an adult.
    • While Rose seems pretty normal while running the Red Mill, once she marries George, she quickly regresses into an awkward and fragile mess. In spite of being a former professional piano player, the thought of playing piano for a few guests utterly terrifies her.
    • Phil's childishness, dislike of the outside world and desire for structure, the disruption of which is the primary reason he hates Rose, are suggestive of someone on the spectrum.
  • Ambiguously Evil:
    • Phil's treatment of Rose makes it very clear he's a bad guy. However, it's unclear if he was preparing near the end to take fatal action against her, with him dying before he can make any kind of retaliation over her selling his rawhides. His words certainly are threatening, but the whole situation is still quite ambiguous.
    • Then there's his murderer, Peter. His killing of Phil is a murky situation due to the victim being an all around awful guy who was maybe going to do worse to Rose. Still, it's never made clear if this was Peter's last resort to save his mother or if he had long intended to use lethal force against Phil. And while nothing explicit, there's a few signs that could point toward this not being his first murder, or even his last.
  • Ambiguously Gay: Peter is a shy, sensitive boy, considerably better-groomed than the rough-necked ranchers, who speaks with a lisp, has a close relationship with his mother, and makes paper flowers. And despite being at an age where his hormones should be raging, he seems to take no notice at all of the young and attractive Lola. The other ranchers immediately latch on to this and call him slurs whenever he's around. In a late scene, he makes astute questions about the nature of Phil and Bronco Henry's relationship, seeming to quickly deduce its sexual nature. Immediately afterward, he smirks suggestively at Phil and touches his face. Despite all this, we never get any direct confirmation of his sexuality. He might possibly have faked his attraction to Phil to lure him to his death, but there's nothing presented that explicitly disproves the idea that his feelings for Phil were genuine.
  • Answer Cut: The doctor tells George that he thinks Phil died of anthrax. A puzzled George says that Phil never touched diseased animals. The film then cuts to Peter—who is holding the rope that Phil made for him, the rope that Phil made from the hide that Peter gave him. And when he's holding the rope, Peter is using gloves.
  • Armoured Closet Gay: Phil, the virulently homophobic manly man, is secretly gay.
  • Bad People Abuse Animals: In a fit of rage after he learns that George will marry Rose, Phil whips and shouts at a horse in his barn unprovoked.
  • Beware the Quiet Ones: Seemingly meek and mild-mannered Peter ultimately proves to be a lot more unscrupulous than he lets on, as he willingly manipulates Phil's feelings for him in order to kill him for driving his mother to alcoholism.
  • Big Bad: Phil, whose abusive and toxic behavior makes everyone close to him miserable.
  • Big Brother Bully: Phil routinely insults George's intelligence and weight. Though George has a tough enough skin not to let it bring him down, he later admits to Rose that he felt completely alone when he was only with Phil.
  • Bittersweet Ending: More on the sweet end but with a slightly grim undercurrent. Peter murders Phil for emotionally abusing his mother and stepfather and gets away with it. While showing that Peter is a lot more unscrupulous than he originally let on, it also ensures that his mother can finally sober up and live a happy life with George. On the other hand, Phil's death is framed in a tragic light, as he was led to his death by the boy he had genuine affection towards.
  • Body Motifs: Hands are given a lot of attention in the film, drawing attention to the sense of separation and distance many of the characters (especially Phil and later Rose) feel from each other. Manual work, and especially manual contact, gets a lot of camera focus (even if it's done for purely practical purposes), as does Phil's braiding of the rope as a gift for Peter and Rose is enraptured by and extremely possessive of a pair of gloves she is given by some indigenous traders after she gifts them Phil's hides.
  • Boomerang Bigot: Phil is gay yet frequently belittles Peter for his supposedly effeminate demeanor. He calls Peter "Miss Nancy" ("nancy" being a slur for homosexual men), Little Lord Fauntleroy, and other derogatory remarks. His men take his lead, wolf-whistling at Peter as if he were a woman.
  • Crazy Jealous Guy: Phil is not jealous over the loss of a romantic partner (possible Incest Subtext aside), but his vendetta against Rose and his extreme possessiveness over the hides (which he had no use for and was going to burn to stop anyone else having them) that he cherishes as a substitute for human intimacy has definite shades of this trope.
  • Death Glare: Many of the times Phil makes eye contact with Rose have this vibe to them. His expression tends to be neutral rather than explicitly frowning, but there is a definite sense of menace.
  • Deconstruction: The film specifically focuses on the Values Dissonance most Westerns usually ignore or downplay to emphasize how many people suffered under the time period's restrictive social mores. Such as Peter or Phil.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Evil may be too harsh a word for Phil, but he is at the very least an immensely nasty individual. Still, there's three men he shows himself to care deeply for, most likely carrying a torch for all three.
    • He absolutely worships his mentor Bronco Henry, never failing to sing his praises. It's all but stated that the two had sex at least once.
    • While he's a dick to his brother George, he's very attached to him and clearly cares about George in his own way. The first act of the film is one scene after another of Phil trying to connect with George and George rebuffing him. However, he acts cooler to George after George marries Rose due to feelings of jealousy and betrayal.
    • After abusing him before, Phil relates to and winds up gravitating towards Peter. During their interactions, Phil shows a far kinder side to him, genuinely trying to impart wisdom and skills on him and open himself up to his nephew.
  • Extremely Protective Child: Seeing that Phil's emotional abuse has driven his mother to alcoholism, Peter deliberately manipulates Phil's affection for him to drive him to his death.
  • Foe Romance Subtext: Between Phil and Peter, although Phil is unaware Peter regards him as an enemy. A later scene between them, where they share a cigarette, features Peter staring Phil down with a positively smoldering gaze, and one interpretation of Phil's reaching out to Peter is his attempting to recreate the relationship between himself and Bronco Henry, his mentor and past lover, with himself in the mentor role.
  • Foil: Peter is this for Phil. He's quite effeminate while Phil is extremely masculine. He loves Rose while Phil hates her. Perhaps the most surprising though is that both parties try to mask their true selves, going in the opposite direction. Phil tries to put up a strong front to cover his insecurities, whilst Peter puts up a more sensitive front to hide his strength.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • Peter's ease with dissecting a rabbit, willingness to both comfort and then Neck Snap an injured one and talk that his father used to think he was too "strong" is a warning that he may not be as harmless as he appears.
    • At the beginning of the movie, Phil warns the drive to steer clear of a cow carcass, as it contains anthrax. Later on, he castrates a bull without wearing gloves, stating that he doesn't need them. At the end of the movie, Peter kills Phil by poisoning him with anthrax from a cow carcass, which seeps into a cut on his hand while making a lasso—which wouldn't have happened if Phil was wearing gloves.
  • Gay Cowboy: Phil and Bronco Henry.
  • Good Colors, Evil Colors: While no one in this movie is exactly evil, the bullying Phil consistently wears darker colors, while the gentle Peter consistently wears lighter colors.
  • Good Is Not Soft: Peter is a gentle, kindhearted boy, but it becomes clear that he's not as much of a pushover as he seems. He is kind to animals, but he's also remarkably unsentimental about, say, dissecting a rabbit for his studies. Phil learns too late that this is the case.
  • Gothic Horror: Rose's experience at the ranch has many elements of this: the large mansion that's simultaneously claustrophobic and isolated, unfriendly housekeeper, her being a low-status heroine completely out of her depth around the wealthier residents, and the omnipresent hostility and psychological pressure brought against her by Phil. Her alcoholism provides the means for Sanity Slippage as well, and she spends much of the film wandering around the house in her night attire and being treated similar to the Madwoman in the Attic, albeit one who is annoying and embarrassing rather than threatening.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: While Phil is extremely cruel and unpleasant, he's never physically violent towards Rose or Peter and there's certainly no indication that he would ever kill anybody. In contrast, although Peter is portrayed as gentle, kind, and initially at least a target of Phil's cruel mockery, he's willing to commit murder to achieve his own ends, and shows little remorse, guilt, or any kind of emotional conflict when doing so.
  • Harmful to Minors: Peter was the one to discover his birth father's hanging corpse after he committed suicide. It's implied that Peter was quite young when this happened.
  • Hell Is That Noise: Phil's whistling is actually quite melodious, and his banjo playing excellent, but he weaponizes both against Rose.
  • He-Man Woman Hater: Phil detests Rose in particular and despises women generally, believing that too much contact with them makes men weak and soft.
  • Hidden Depths:
    • Beneath the surface of the hard-assed, macho cowboy, Phil is a profoundly lonely man. He scorns displays of softness or sentimentality, but it's clear that he wants an emotional connection of some kind, and when he receives genuine care he's moved to the brink of tears. Additionally, even though Phil despises the trappings of upper class refinement, he studied classics at Yale, makes literary and mythological allusions in his conversations and speeches, and is a talented musician.
    • Peter is written off by Phil as a flamboyant wimp at first, but he and the audience discover there's much more to him. Beneath his unassuming and fey manner, Peter is hiding much strength and cunning, frequently proving to be adept at Phil's macho lifestyle against all expectations.
  • Hypocrite: Phil condemns Rose (amongst other things) for her growing alcoholism. His disgust over her behavior isn't much of a moral high ground though given his bullying is what drove her to the habit.
  • Incest Subtext:
    • The homosexual Phil is extremely attached to his brother George, even sleeping in the same bed. His utter hatred for Rose can very easily be interpreted as him seeing her as a romantic rival.
    • There's also the matter of Phil and Peter. Though not related by blood, they still are step-uncle and step-nephew, and there is an enormous amount of sexual tension between the two. And while Peter's feelings could've been faked to lure Phil to his death, there's still enough evidence that he reciprocated the attraction.
    • In the depths of her alcoholism, Rose is willing to be undressed in front of Peter and touch him in a way that clearly makes him uncomfortable and he tries to stop, but it's not clear whether this trope is in play, or if her desperation for physical contact (a recurring motif throughout the film that applies to Phil as well) is purely platonic but expressing itself in an inappropriate way, or if Peter's discomfort is entirely due to the mental state she's in.
  • Irony: Phil hates the trappings of wealth and sophistication. After his death, the mortician shaves his scruff and puts him in a suit; when we see Phil in his casket, he's almost unrecognizable.
  • Jerkass: Phil starts the movie as a huge bully and only gets worse from there. He does soften up towards the end, at least towards Peter.
  • Kick the Dog:
    • After he finds out his brother George is marrying Rose, Phil furiously whips a horse for no reason except to vent his frustrations.
    • When Rose is struggling whilst playing the piano, Phil decides to show off his expertise on the banjo to make her feel even worse about her mediocrity.
  • Kill the Ones You Love: Possibly. Peter gets quite close with Phil with hints of romance between the two. Despite all that, he kills Phil in order to save his mother from him. The case is ambiguous though as it's possible Peter was plotting against Phil all along and faking his feelings.
  • Loosely Based On A True Story: The movie is based on a book that was a fictionalization of its author, Thomas Savage’s, youth. Peter is the character based on Savage, who died in 2003. Peter is significantly older than Savage was when his mother married a man who owned a ranch with his brother (Savage was five) and he wasn’t as effeminate as Peter is portrayed as being, according to Campion who spoke extensively with his relatives.
  • The Lost Lenore: Phil's beloved mentor (and eventual lover) Bronco Henry.
  • Malaproper: Phil exclusively pronounces piano as 'pinano,' likely on purpose.
  • Manly Gay: Phil, with the extremely likely possibility that his manliness is to cover up his insecurity over his sexuality. It's also heavily implied that and Bronco Henry slept together. And given Phil learnt his manly ways from the man, that would mean Bronco Henry counts as well.
  • Mercy Kill: Peter does so to a rabbit with a broken leg at Phil's request.
  • The Mentor:
    • A man named Bronco Henry taught Phil and George, two Ivy League-educated men from the East Coast, how to be ranchers. Phil in particular idolizes Henry, and it's strongly implied, if not outright stated, that they were lovers.
    • After some time, Phil starts to position himself as a mentor to Peter.
  • Manchild: Phil's macho posturing, such as his refual to bathe and hatred of women, has shades of this; not to mention his co-dependent relationship with his brother George and attempts to sabotage his relationship with Rose by complaining to their parents about her. His frequent lashing out towards others also shows an inability to control his emotions. Additionally, despite being smart enough that he could've had higher aspirations, he chose the low down life of a rancher where he gets to go through life like a playground bully. And his cruelty is usually quite calculated, but it can also be incredibly juvenile, like when he mocks Peter's lisp and decides to destroy something he was proud of making.
  • Neck Snap: Upon finding an injured rabbit, Phil says to put it out of its misery. Peter comforts it before killing it in this way, with a decisiveness that clearly surprises Phil and causes him to (slightly) wince.
  • Nice Guy: In contrast to his cruel brother, George is a gentleman who truly loves Rose.
  • The Nicknamer: Phil refers to his brother George as "Fatso," and to Peter as "Miss Nancy."
  • Noodle Incident: When talking about prostitutes he and his brother have slept with, Phil brings up one he calls the "tomato soup queen." Precisely why she has such a unique nickname is never explained.
  • No Social Skills: Although George does manage to deftly calm down some lively dinner guests who are annoying Rose, he otherwise seems to have no charisma or social skills at all. His idea of chatting Rose up is to read the label on a bottle of sauce. When Rose tries to teach him how to dance, he staunchly insists that he can't. When he throws a dinner party, he's utterly incapable of making idle conversation. By contrast, Phil is a witty and well-spoken man.
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: The one time Phil doesn't show up for breakfast or start bossing people around, George knows something is horribly wrong. Phil is deathly ill at this point and is completely stripped of his usual personality, even dressing in formal attire instead of his cowboy garb and walking in a quiet daze due to the disease.
  • The Pig-Pen: As someone who spends his days doing tough physical labor and working with cattle, Phil smells terrible, and he refuses to freshen himself up at all. He explicitly states he has never used the bath in the house, and cleans himself by (probably not very often) giving himself a mudbath and then washing off in the river.
  • Porn Stash: Peter stumbles upon Bronco Henry's secret cache of muscle magazines. Strangely, he's scrawled his name on them.
  • Posthumous Character: Bronco Henry died 20 years before the start of the film.
  • Rich Bitch: "The Old Lady," Phil and George's mother, is very wealthy, and quite condescending to her poorer daughter-in-law Rose. She eventually warms to her, though.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here: The governor and his wife immediately take the temperature of the room and start making their goodbyes after Rose's meltdown at the piano. When Phil arrives and starts threatening to make a scene with his passive-aggressive statements, the governor plays it off as a joke and promptly skedaddles.
  • Sensitive Guy and Manly Man: George and Phil Burbank are this, respectively. Later in the movie, Peter takes George's place as the Sensitive Guy in the dynamic.
  • Serious Business: Played for drama. George's simple request that Rose play a piano ditty or two at a dinner party seems to terrify Rose. She practices as if she's about to walk to the gallows. When finally summoned on the night, she nearly goes catatonic and refuses to play.
  • Single Tear: When Rose dances with George he has to break it off and is left in tears over how good it feels to not be alone.
  • Sinister Whistling: Phil has a slow, jaunty number that he purposefully torments Rose with.
  • Smart Jerk and Nice Moron: "Moron" might be too strong a word, but George is rather awkward and lacking in social skills despite being a friendly man, which contrasts Phil, who is witty and well-educated but also a belligerent bully.
  • The Stoic: Phil tries to fashion himself as one of these to go with his masculine persona, but his passions and insecurities makes it a challenge. Ironically, Peter, the boy Phil bullies as weak and effeminate, actually is stoic.
  • Title Drop: A passage from the Book of Psalms "deliver... my darling from the power of the dog" is read at Phil's funeral. Peter later leafs through a Bible to re-read the passage.
  • Tracking Shot: Especially towards the end of the film, hands that come into contact with people are given a lot of focus by the camera, to highlight the sense of separation many of the characters feel.
  • Tragic Villain: Phil is an awful man, but the fact much of of his abusive, bullying demeanour is implied to be a mask for the self-hatred he feels for being gay lends him a measure of sympathy.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behaviour: One interpretation of Peter mentioning that his late father was worried about him being too "strong" is that he was showing signs of this. Phil dismisses it, given Peter's current apparent weakness, but the interpretation is a valid one.
  • Twilight of the Old West: At the very tail end of it. While the rural Montana village the story's set in looks much like any other town of the Old West, that's more to do with its remoteness than anything—we see cars and player pianos, and the lifestyle of someone like Phil is seen as something of an anachronism.
  • Understatement: Phil admits to Peter that they "got off on the wrong foot" after bullying him and his mother for an unclear amount of time.
  • Wicked Cultured: Although the ornery Phil detests displays of upper class pretense, he's an educated and well-read man (having studied classics at Yale), throws literary and mythological references into casual conversation, and is a talented musician.
  • You Are Too Late: Any attempt Phil might have been making to make amends for any of his actions before were in vain as Peter had already sealed his fate.