A land of vast, brown distance where the asphalt stops, where spurs still ring like tambourines, and ropes are made by hide and hand. A gentler, more refined world eats at its edges, filled with its lace doilies and dinner jackets and jangly moving pictures. But for now, hoof and herd, leather and liquor reign.
Brothers Phil and George have lived in this land for decades now, its sounds and smells as stamped on their souls as their mother’s own song. For 25 years, the two have driven cattle across the range. And for Phil, it might as well be home. The hands follow him like puppies, the cows part when he walks. And like the land itself, he can be cruel.
But George, decked in starch shirts and city vests, has always been more comfortable inside, where the fires are tame and tied to their places, where the drinks are served in shimmering crystal.
Those doilies and dinner jackets can’t come fast enough for George. Phil wishes they’d not come at all. He sees the softness growing in his brother, both physically and spiritually. He calls him “Fatty” and “Fatso,” and George endures his brothers’ casual cruelty like a long-beaten dog.
One day, a cattle drive happens upon the tiny crossroad of Beech. The drivers stumble into a simple eatery run by a simple woman, Rose. Her boy, Peter, is almost a man, and he wants to be a doctor someday. But for now, the skinny, gentle lad helps in the kitchen. And in his free time, he molds delicate paper flowers to grace the tables.
Phil sits at the table with his wide-eyed lackeys, picks up a paper flower as if it was dirty. “What little lady made these?” he asks, voice lathered with malintent. When Peter says he made the flowers, the “fun” begins. Phil mocks Peter’s clothes, the towel he carries to stifle wine droplets, the lisp he detects in Peter’s voice. He burns the paper rose as his cohorts laugh. Peter runs to the kitchen. And Rose begins to cry. George is touched by her tears, moved by her beauty and lonely. So lonely.
Beech is just a short drive away from George and Phil’s ranch. George is away more and more. And then one day, George returns and announces to Phil that he and Rose have gotten themselves hitched.
Rose will be coming to live with them, he says. And maybe, during the summer, Peter will, too.
Montana is still wild country, prickly and free, like a stallion unbroke. But George has been tamed. The doilies are moving in. And while Phil can’t stop Rose and Peter from coming, maybe they’ll regret they ever dared.
The Power of the Dog is loaded with flawed characters stuffed with mixed and often ambiguous motives. So for this section, let’s set ambiguity aside and concern ourselves with the unmitigated bright spots.
George, arguably, offers a couple of those. When Phil mocks Peter and makes Rose cry, George takes issue and confronts Phil (albeit weakly) over his attitude. He seems to treat hoteliers and restauranteurs with respect, and he approaches Rose with a kindness rarely seen in this version of the Old(ish) West. When Peter’s away and Rose frets about juggling both cooking and serving duties, George steps in and becomes the establishment’s waiter for the night, earning Rose’s gratitude.
Peter also deeply cares for Rose. “What kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother?” he says at one point. And Rose is devoted to her boy, even as she’s unable to protect him from the rough men they’re both surrounded by.
The movie takes its title, at least in part, from Psalm 22. Verses 19-20 read (in the ESV) “But you, O Lord, do not be far off! O you my help, come quickly to my aid! Deliver my soul from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dog!”
We hear this verse read during a funeral held in a church. We see a cross or two in the background. But beyond that, any mention of Christianity or any other religion is pretty much absent.
Phil strips off his clothes and wades and bathes and coats himself with mud in a hidden lake. We see most of him, including his behind. (He later seems to stimulate himself, sticking his hand down his trousers as he lays on the ground.) Other men frolick in a low stream, their privates imperfectly covered by hats or hands and their rear ends fully visible to the camera. Some scenes depict shirtless cowboys at work. A stack of period-specific porn magazines depict men almost entirely nude, their most private privates covered with leaves.
Rose is sometimes seen in (pretty modest) silky nightgowns. On her and George’s wedding night, she wears just such a set of lingerie, and when George touches her shoulder she seems terrified. Women in what looks to be a brothel wear more revealing garb. We hear rough discussions of sex and states of sexual arousal.
While Peter is certainly effeminate, his sexual preferences aren’t clear until the end of the movie (and even then, there’s some question). He’s primarily concerned with his medical studies and, of course, helping his mother when he can.
[Spoiler Warning] But Phil—rough, mean, homophobic Phil—is actually gay. It’s strongly suggested that Phil’s own rough mentor, Bronco Henry, seduced Phil when he was about Peter’s age, and Phil still carries one of the dead man’s monogrammed handkerchiefs (which he keeps stuffed in his pants) and strokes his old saddle. When Phil tells Peter how Bronco Henry saved his life—they huddled together in a sudden snowstorm so that their body warmth would keep them alive—Peter asks, coyly, “naked?” Phil doesn’t answer, but the audience knows what happened. The scene in which Phil and Peter talk about that event is charged with sensuality, and it’s clear that some new seduction is taking place (though who’s seducing whom is itself strangely ambiguous). We don’t know how far this potential tryst went, though. The camera leaves the two to the barn and doesn’t return.
The Power of the Dog seems electric with violent potential. But strangely, we see very little of it. At least on humans, that is.
Phil is a bully, no doubt. But the only thing we see him physically attack is his horse, which he strikes when he’s had a bad day. (The horse shies and whinnies and tries to back away from the harness that Phil is whipping at it, but the camera departs before we see any physical harm done.) Phil also castrates a number of cattle with his bare hands (which we see in discomforting detail).
Phil and another character torment a rabbit, too. When a woodpile falls on the critter, the logs break one of its legs (we see a bit of blood on the fur), and someone snaps its neck (off camera) to put it out of its misery.
Anthrax is a big issue in this cattle-driven land. We see at least two carcasses that are said to be infected with the nasty disease (and cowboys are told to stay well away). A human is infected with it, too, and the results aren’t pretty: A wound turns black and swollen, and it’s clear that he’s gravely ill.
Someone cuts himself quite badly. Cattle are cut up and stripped of hide. A servant is horrified when she walks in on Peter and finds him dissecting a rabbit on his desk. (We see the animal’s corpse.) A rider falls off a horse. Someone is chased with an apparent attempt to harm. We hear that Peter’s father killed himself.
[Spoiler Warning] One of the main characters kills someone else.
No f- or s-words, but we do hear plenty of other profanity, including “a–,” “b–ch,” “d–n,” “h—” and “f-ggot.” God’s name is misused four times, thrice with “d–n.” Jesus’ name is abused at least once.
When Rose—still cooking food for visitors in Beech—sees some of her guests getting a little rowdy, she laments that they broke out the wine. “I wish they wouldn’t do that,” she says. She doesn’t drink in Beech, and she disapproves of those who do. Perhaps it’s because her former husband drank (as we later learn). Or perhaps its because, somewhere in her past, she learned she had a weakness for the stuff.
No matter: When she moves to the ranch after marrying George, Rose turns to the bottle to, in part, deal with Phil’s bullying. The problem gets progressively, painfully worse as the movie goes on: The Power of the Dog shows just how corrosive and obliterating alcoholism can be. She sneaks drinks when she thinks no one’s looking. She sucks out the last drop from tossed-away bottles. She hides a bottle in bed. And as the movie goes on, she’s almost always in a state of inebriation. (She does, the movie suggest, eventually pull out of that alcoholic nosedive.)
Phil and others can drink heavily, too. We see a bartender pour several shots out on the bar, ready to be quaffed. Dinner guests banter over George’s latest cocktail “concoctions.”
Secrets, lies and crippling expectations all form a part of the plot here. But so does body odor. In fact, George—when he invites the governor of Montana and his wife for dinner—strongly suggests to Phil that he take a bath if he wishes to attend. Phil doesn’t go to dinner, but he shows up later and openly brags, “I stink, and I like it.”
The Power of the Dog is a lot like the Montana landscape it’s set in: Harsh and delicate, powerful and subtle. Each relationship reverberates with history and hidden sin, each conversation wallows in words that aren’t said. The plotting can be as intricate and exacting as a Victorian doily. Motives and meanings can be ambiguous, but no less powerful because of it.
And like that Montana landscape, The Power of the Dog can be exceptionally harsh and brutal to spend any time with.
The movie, directed by Oscar winner Jane Campion and starring Benedict Cumberbatch—both of whom might well snag a few awards for their work here—is built around the lost and lonely, those who look for solace sometimes in the worst of ways and who abuse themselves, and each other, to get there.
Sex (including homosexual sex), violence and alcohol aren’t just steak sauce here: They’re the meat of the thing, the inescapable elements that makes the meal. And that makes this meal, for many, best avoided.
The Power of the Dog is as true as its name. It does, indeed, have power. But, like the Psalmist who wrote about it long before, it’s something many will want to be delivered from.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.