How ‘The Power Of The Dog’ Revolutionized The Western
This article contains spoilers for The Power Of The Dog
The Power of the Dog is Jane Campion’s bold new film, set in rural Montana in 1925. Brothers Phil and George Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemmons) meet Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) during a cattle drive, and George marries her. Phil proceeds to mock and harass Rose and her son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), while they all live at the same ranch. There is much to be said and myriad ways of interpreting the subtle yet sharp moments and symbols in the film, yet it certainly serves as an incisive and nuanced portrayal and deconstruction of masculinity.
The film subverts conventional Western themes of masculinity while at the same time paints a vivid image of the veritable cage that the performance of masculinity can be. The posturing, self-denial, and need to exert a certain type of masculinity over the world, as displayed by Phil, reads not solely as a one-dimensionally vile thing, but more so as a painful burden. The burden of performative and confining gender expectations is unpacked with expert care and gentleness by Jane Campion, dissecting and unraveling everything that stereotypically stings and strikes about the Western genre. This film speaks to the pervading, hollow echo of a certain type of masculine force that demands to exert itself over the landscape, the native peoples, and fellow humans alike. This same force reflects the impulse of manifest destiny that landed us with the cursed American history we still carry around. The Power of the Dog does not simplify or provide a clear and pat answer as to why men manifest the types of toxic behaviors that they do. However, the awareness that Phil suffers from deep repression of his own homosexual desires and past certainly casts his actions in a more nuanced and sympathetic light. The film does not condemn all men outright, but rather the gentle, controlled storytelling allows for the cruelty of certain brutal actions to be held up to the light, unwrapped, processed, and transformed by the next generation (in this case, in Peter). Ideally, this deconstruction of masculinity, cruelty, and Western genre tropes can help us all to move forward with and unpack the collective wounds we carry, inflicted by the sometimes brutal nature of patriarchal societal expectations.
Phil, a brooding and moody cowboy in every sense of the word, bullies nearly everyone around him, mocks any and all forms of gentleness, and ultimately drives Rose to drinking, and her son, Peter, to devise a way to rid him of their lives. Phil spends a good deal of the film weaving together strips of hide to make a rope, which he intends to gift to young Peter as he goes off to school. Unbeknownst to Phil, Peter has infected the hide with anthrax, and it enters his body through an open wound (that Phil refuses to tend to), killing him. In so many ways, the weight of this rope that Phil himself weaves speaks to the collective pain, trauma, and grief that Phil binds himself with and inevitably hands down to the younger generation. Peter recognizes the weight and the pain all at the same time and uses the rope to his advantage, and after all is said and done, tucks the rope under his bed.
A rope is many things — a tool for whipping animals, a way of defending yourself in a brutal landscape, a helpful tool to pull yourself out of tough situations, possibly even a way to hang yourself. This rope also becomes a literal tool for murder and thusly a tool for Peter to release himself and his mother from the torment and bullying that Phil inflicted on them. The fact that this rope is in and of itself so many things at the same time is fitting as well. It is woven carefully — with all of the things that Phil has wrapped and weaved himself into and out of: the self-hatred, the denial, the cruelty. Sucking the poison out of these things (literally and figuratively, in this case) is not an easy or simple thing. This is why Peter tucking the rope under the bed can be read as an honest expression of how the journey towards becoming “better” than what we are given is such a complicated journey.
The poison is in the things we weave ourselves, the open wound that Phil refuses to acknowledge — the performance of machismo; the layers of tough hide intertwined to create a weapon for his own self-destruction. The open-ended nature of the storytelling itself is important as well, because it isn’t necessarily about “what happened” or “whodunnit” — a search for clues and a payoff — as much as it is about a poetic and sympathetic deconstruction of toxic masculinity, cruelty, and patriarchal expectations. At the same time, it’s inherently an LGBTQ story, which sheds compassion on the ways in which members of the LGBTQ community suffer, or have historically suffered, with repression and the need to hide their true selves. This, woven in with the hovering Biblical weight baked into not only this place and time but these characters and the poetry of what is being said, form a robust picture of the West writ large.
The dog, as titularly referenced, of course, is another valuable image. A dog can be perceived as both a predator as well as a tamed, confined ancestor of a more beastly, primal wolf. The ways in which masculinity flashes its teeth and also hides itself, covering and lashing out all at once can all be found in the image of a dog’s mouth bared wide with sharp teeth. This image carries weight and power in equal measure. It evokes the power of the dog, the creature that still lurks, that barks and snaps and yet is also separated in some measure from its true, wild wolf power. In viewing Phil with any kind of empathetic lens at all, we can sense how the performance of masculinity weighs on men, as well as the dangers and perils of it.
Power in all its forms is also another clear player in this film, conventional power as it is typically perceived, as well as power dynamics between characters. Ultimately Peter subverts the preconceived notion of what classic power is, especially in a Western setting classically embodied by sheer manpower and traditional strength. He is able to flip this power dynamic in presumably murdering Phil and protecting his mother – not through muscular strength but through knowledge. This echoes the same transition happening on a more macro scale as we transition from muscular masculine strength being the strongest power of the day to the ability to wield knowledge unlocking a different type of quiet power that empowers those that otherwise have been oppressed and repressed. Peter finds his way out of torment in a way that many of us today are able to: through the quiet strength of inner confidence and the application of knowledge in effective ways. Certainly, this is a dark twist, and the seduction and near manipulation of Peter is not necessarily to be applauded, but the allegory of the whole film rings true and prescient. It is telling that Peter can immediately see the “dog” in the landscape that Phil shows to him, something that Phil is astonished to hear. What Peter can see, what he can observe, what he can assess, is his power and strength. In this way, a different type of quiet, thoughtful power ultimately wins the day, even in the wild, wild West. Even though the pain of his isolation and bullying still wounds him in profound ways, he is also able to literally weaponize his knowledge, and this is the knife-edge of how brilliantly and well-crafted this Western-without-a-single-gun is. The murder on this Western plateau is of Phil’s own making – masculinity itself nearly strangling Phil in every literal and figurative way.
Everything, even the foreboding, ominous landscape itself, stratified by rocks and the shadows cast by their immovable gravity harkens to the ‘power of the dog’—the weight of overbearing force and domineering viciousness, of physical, domineering presence. The landscape is vast, powerful in itself, inspires awe, but is not given the care and respect it deserves by cowboys. Jane Campion does not miss the opportunity to speak to every aspect of the Western genre by touching on the local Native American populations as well. Phil keeps the hides that are due to the Native Americans out of his own selfish desire and pride. And this precise thing, the hide, is used as Phil’s ultimate downfall — an infected leather. He builds his own trap all along the way, which is beautiful as it is haunting. He then begins to craft a rope with his hands — the same hands whose open wound will be his downfall.
Hands prove to be one final perennial symbol. Peter crafts with hands as well, but with a much more delicate medium: paper to create a paper flower (which Phil then burns). In contrast, Phil uses the hide of an animal to create a rope — innately a tough process which makes his hands even tougher through callous and the thickness of skin. In Phil’s most honest moments, he allows himself to feel, enjoy, and luxuriate with his hands in the soft, tender feeling of a silk handkerchief from his ex-lover. Delicate, sensuous, and free, as opposed to the rough, slamming, grasping work his hands normally do. His most authentic and true self is nearly as pure as an infant, reveling in the sheer experience of touch and the gentleness that I believe we all crave, regardless of gender or gender performance. Rose also gets to experience both this delicate experience, as well as literal protection for her hands, in the gift of ornate gloves the Native Americans give to her in response to her kindness. These gloves are both a token of action (riding gloves) for this woman otherwise immobilized by her trauma, as well as literal protection for her hands and beauty. Finally, Phil’s death enters through the wound on his hand that he does not tend to, speaking to how masculine values of strength lead him to being both too headstrong, and also perhaps simply not emotionally equipped, to help himself with his own healing.
Lacing the hide with anthrax is an elegant and well-designed murder as well, for which Peter cannot be ultimately traced or blamed. In killing Phil, he frees himself and his mother from torment. So who here is the ultimate cowboy, protecting himself and his family on the great frontier? In the final scene, the film more explicitly explains the origin of the title — from the biblical quote “Deliver my soul from the sword, my darling from the power of the dog.” As he holds his weapon with gloved hands so as not to infect himself, Peter slides the rope under the bed and peers out the window to see his mother happily kissing George once again. Like so much of the rest of the film, these quiet scenes are left open-ended with much to possibly glean from them — but here in this moment, it seems clear that Peter has succeeded in delivering himself from the power of the dog.