Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog!
Although I wore dog images on my clothes for the AFI Fest screening, and there are dogs within this film, “The Power of the Dog” is not about dogs at all. Instead, this film which was adapted from a 1967 Thomas Savage novel of the same name, is about variations of masculinity at a time when the American West and its cowboy culture were changing as cars began bringing travelers through what had been the wild west. On a large profitable cattle ranch, a bitter man with a secret faces off against a boy. At stake, is a woman’s sanity.
Set in Montana (but filmed in New Zealand), the film is separated into five parts. In part I, we meet brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons), but the first voice we hear is a character we have yet to meet, Peter Gordon (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Peter tells us, “When my father passed, I wanted no more than my mother’s happiness.”
In 1925, Phil and George share a room in a large dark-wood house. Their single beds are spare. Phil is dirty and hurls insults at his brother who is heavy-set. Outside, we see their cattle, males are beginning the time-old male ritual of butting heads. That will be quelled by hormone reduction. If you have castration fears or anxieties, you might not want to see this crude castration performed. Phil and George have taken over the ranch from their parents and for 25 years have been running it.
The brothers and ten of their men drive their cattle toward an isolated inn. There is already a boisterous group there–city folk who drive cars, but with the addition of these 12 cowboys, the proprietress, widowed Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), asks her son Peter (Smit-McPhee) to clear out of his own room for a paying customer. He’ll have to sleep in the shed. Peter has been carefully, precisely cutting paper to form paper flowers, using them to both decorate the guests’ dining tables and his father’s grave.
Phil sees the decorations as he sits down for a fried chicken dinner, asking, “I wonder what little lady made these.” The tall thin Peter admits he made them and the sneering Phil burns one paper bouquet. Peter’s large dark eyes seem still and observant, even under the onslaught of Phil’s insults. Rose’s eyes, however, grow large and fearful. Phil has learned all about manhood from the late Bronco Henry, whom he frequently mentions. But was Bronco Henry a good man?
The rest of the paper flowers are cleared from the Burbank’s table to prevent further confrontations. When George attempts to settle the bill, he finds Rose crying in the kitchen and comforts her. Peter is out putting paper flowers on his father’s grave.
In part II, George begins to quietly court Rose. By part III, Rose and George are married (off screen), without inviting Phil as a witness. With George’s money, Peter goes away to college. As Rose moves into the Burbank’s home, Phil starts his insidious campaign to unnerve and humiliate Rose, mostly when George isn’t around. The dynamics shift slightly when Peter arrives from college with his medical books for the summer. By that time, Rose, who previously didn’t drink, has bottles of alcohol hidden in her closet and in the alley behind the great house. Dressed in a white shirt, jeans and white shoes (not boots), the gawky Peter doesn’t fit in. He’s labeled a “Miss Nancy.”
Something Peter says causes Phil to change his approach. Yet Rose becomes even more frantic when Peter begins to spend more time with Phil.
Peter tells Phil, his father, “He used to worry I wasn’t kind enough, that I was too strong.” Phil dismisses that and begins to teach Peter how to be a man, tells him about Bronco Henry, but unbeknownst to Phil, Peter has discovered a secret about Phil. Although Peter has warned Phil about his true nature, Phil believes himself to be the superior man, the teacher but all teachers can be taught things by their students.
I’m not Christian, but according to internet references, the Psalm quoted symbolizes both David’s life and the suffering of Christ. The swords can be both literal swords, but also the criminal execution of Jesus. In this context, “the dog” is not the family pet, but the lowly scavengers that form a pack and attack the weak.
Campion has created a film that acknowledges the beauty of wide open spaces and contrasts that with the men who helped open it up, men like the angry Phil and the ranch hands who seem alienated from the culture of the roaring 1920s that passes through in cars. Phil and the men working the ranch seem to inhabit a different culture, one focused on the baser instincts of men. Yet even within that culture, there’s another one that existed, hidden away. Campion presents the joy of the ranch hands skinny dipping as natural and joyous, contrasting the hidden secretive sensuality that Cumberbatch’s Phil enjoys alone.
This is not a film for the squeamish. Besides the depiction of castration, the film also alludes to the killing of two rabbits (but the film is certified as cruelty-free).
In remarks made before the AFI Fest screening, Campion said the film is about “the absolute torment that comes with denying your true self.” Yet despite the brutality represented by the cowboy life, it is the cool calculations and scientific knowledge that triumph in the end.
Cumberbatch’s Phil is filled with angry angst; he has no friends that he can lean on. Yet he is not evil. There’s a stillness in Smit-McPhee’s Peter, and that’s something that permeates the whole film, making each bitter snarl from Phil seem like a disturbance in the natural peace of these wide open spaces.
“The Power of the Dog” made its world premiere at the 78th Venice International Film Festival on 2 September 2021. Campion was awarded the Silver Lion for Best Direction. “The Power of the Dog” was a red carpet screening during AFI Fest 2021. The film will be released on 17 November 2021 theatrically. It will stream on Netflix from 1 December 2021.