The Power of the Dog

A Film Review

Director/screenwriter Jane Campion's "The Power of the Dog" is a psychological drama about a ranching family in the Montana of 1925. Here are the three main characters:
image: Phil, Peter, and Rose
The woman Rose is slightly blurred. The blurring draws your attention to the two men and, indeed, most of the drama in this film involves their relationship.
Rose's son Peter, whom you see in the center, is wearing white indicating that he is a good guy. However his face doesn't quite support that conclusion. Her brother-in-law Phil on the left is wearing black indicating he is a bad guy. But again the face doesn't quite support that conclusion.
As with this promotional photograph, the film has a lot of subtlety baked in. A couple examples: Rose is a widow whose physician husband commited suicide. Her difficulties organize the story's presentation. As in a traditional play there are five acts:
  1. Phil, Peter, Phil's brother George, and Rose are introduced in this act and we get to see something of their relationships.
  2. Tension rises because George courts Rose against Phil's wishes.
  3. A crisis arises when Rose moves to the ranch and is humiliated intentionally by Phil and unintentionally by George.
  4. Things calm down a bit when we see Phil is not as tough as he would have us believe.
  5. In the denouement we see Rose drinking too much, taking a step towards standing up to Phil, being accepted by George's parents, and restablishing rapport with George.
    However most of this long act is devoted to the drama between Phil and Peter. Only at the end do you see how this is related to Rose.
English actor Benedict Cumberbatch plays Phil. It's hard to believe he isn't a nasty, boorish cowboy.
image: Cowboy Phil
From the silhouette you might think Phil is armed with two six shooters. He's not. Those bulges at his hips are just his chaps. This film is not a old-style western and it wasn't filmed in Montana, but some effort was been made to imitate the genre. Although the New Zealand scenery lacks authenticity you will not be disappointed in it.
We get very little backstory for Phil. However this boorish cowboy turns out to have graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Yale— unlike his brother George who was unable to complete college.
Phil and George couldn't be more different. George wants very much to fit into Montana's high society whereas Phil tries hard to avoid such a fate. Their ability to communicate with each other is so poor you wonder how they can successfully run a ranch together.
Years ago the brothers took control of a ranch from their parents. The parents are well-to-do and may have been owners more than they were ranchers. The brothers were taught how to ranch by a mysterious, and much revered, cowboy named “Bronco Henry”. Midway through the film it becomes apparent that Bronco Henry taught Phil about sex too.
Peter wants to be a doctor and spends a lot of time with his father's medical books and with hands-on practice dissecting animals.
image: Peter dissecting animals
Notice that Peter wears gloves when dissecting a potentially diseased animal.
In the fifth act Phil teaches Peter about ranching and one begins to wonder if Peter may become to Phil as Phil was to Bronco Henry. Be that as it may, Peter's version of manhood is different than what we see in his behavior. We learn what Peter thinks in the film's only voiceover.
“When my father passed I wanted nothing more than my mother's happiness. For what kind of a man would I be, if I did not help my mother?”
It is Phil that Rose needs saving from.
Jane Campion is not above obfuscating her themes. For one thing that voiceover appears in the initial credits and so we are liable to forget it. For another, there are two dog scenes which have nothing to do with the title of the film. In the first Phil rather cruelly calls his dog away from playing with Peter. In the second Phil realizes that Peter is the only other person who can see the dog in the foothills.
image: The barking dog in the foothills
These obfuscations are minor. The film has plenty of hints about the direction it is going. Most people will not get those hints on first viewing. I certainly did not. However if you pay close attention to everything in the film's last scene, you will figure things out. That scene shows how Peter expresses his manhood and what that has to do with the film's title. You will recognize that scene without difficulty because it begins with Peter reading this excerpt from the Bible:
“Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.”
The dog here represents Jesus's own people, who sent him to the Romans to be crucified.

Spoiler Alert

Assigning this kind of meaning to the word “dog” is not unusual. Dogs are close to us but they can turn on us. In the Middle East today, as in Biblical times, dogs are considered unclean.
So this film's title refers to someone close to us who turns on us, as some dogs might, and knowingly causes our death.
The clear reference is to Peter who has become close to Phil and yet causes Phil's death by infecting him with anthrax. Peter is Phil's dog.
If you get a chance to rewatch the film you will see several hints that Peter knows what he is doing. The most obvious is Peter's use of gloves when dissecting the diseased cow and also when handling the cowhide strips that Phil uses to finish the rope. Phil has no protection when his sticks his hand with its open wound into a tub of water containing the diseased cowhide. This is no accident; those cowhide strips had been hanging to dry before Peter put them in a tub and brought them in to Phil.
If we let our minds wander a bit, the title becomes even more meaningful. Indirectly it refers to people close to us who, intentionally or not, cause us harm.
Phil intentionally torments Rose. He is Rose's dog.
George unintentionally torments Rose by insisting she play the piano for a discerning audience. During this part of the film he too is Rose's dog.
Take care you do not become someone's dog.
J Adrian Zimmer
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