The Power of the Dog



This film is essentially a murder mystery, though not of the conventional garden variety kind. This is not Agatha Christie. There is more than one mystery here including a spiritual mystery encapsulated by the film’s title. The title to the film comes from Psalm 22: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.”


This is a film that portrays events that set  in Montana in 1925 at a wealthy ranch owned by two brothers Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons). During a cattle drive the cowboys meet the owner of a saloon Rose Gordon (Kristen Dunst).  Phil the less gentlemanly of the two brothers feels attracted to her while his brother Phil is repelled by her. From there on the calves butt heads as symbolized by an image early on in the film. Phil believes Rose is after George’s money. Rose has son Peter, (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is a delicate young boy unaccustomed to the rough ways of the west. The film was written and directed by Jane Campion. It has received a lot of favourable attention such as 12 Academy award nomination nominations including Best Picture, Best Director and Best actor for Cumberbatch, best supporting actor for both Plemons and Smit-McPhee and Best supporting actor Dunst who is also the spouse of Plemons. No film has more nominations this year.

While the cinematography is stunning, not every one was impressed that it was shot mainly in New Zealand standing in for Montana. At one time Phil is standing looking up into the mountains and the cowboys wonder what he sees. His reply is curt: “If you can’t see it; it ain’t there.”

Early in the film, Pete in narration, says “when my father passed, what sort of man would I be if I did not help my mother?”  And that is a significant theme in the film.  Masculinity, both toxic and otherwise is important in the film.

Peter is first seen making flowers out of paper for the dinner table in the restaurant, when the staff are rudely dismissed by Phil. “I wonder what little lady made these,” he asks while looking directly at Pete. Phil lights the paper and throws it into a glass of water, as if beauty cannot possibly be masculine. It is only fit to be discarded. Who needs flowers?  Meanwhile the men—the real men—cavort with whores. As a flower child myself, I dissent from the suggestion that flowers are not masculine. Phil writes to his parents warning them that George is courting a “suicide widow.” But George is in awe of Rose. And in time they marry.

George is much gentler and civilized  than his rougher brother. He is a true gentleman. Interestingly George and Phil share a bed in the hotel. But all is chaste.

Though Phil is rougher than George he has his artistic side too. He plays the banjo while Rose is playing the piano and drowns her out. Later Phil also made a beautiful lasso for Peter who becomes his protege.  He also was Phi Beta Kappa in college while studying the classics at an eastern university.  The Governor asks George, “ Does he swear at the cattle in Latin?” He calls the ranch “an island of civilization,” but says Phil’s dirty clothes don’t bother him. “He’s a ranchman. That’s honest dirt.”

Peter may not be as innocent as he seems, for we learn from the maid that he killed a rabbit to practice surgery.  Yet Peter and Phil, so apparently different, are also attracted to each other. Phil becomes his mentor. Peter’s father hung himself and Peter says his father told him he wasn’t kind enough and that he was too strong.  Phil finds that hard to believe.

There is a mysterious death that is central to the story. And it is mysterious.

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