When Isaac, my podcast partner for Down & Out Reviews, suggested that we watch The Power of the Dog (2021) to discuss in our next broadcast, I assumed he wanted to do so in order to opine on the slap heard around the world. As it turned out, he did not want to get into Will Smith’s assault on Chris Rock. Instead, he genuinely wanted to converse about a film that, frankly, I had been avoiding. The reason I brought up the incident at the Oscars is because the film that earned its director, Jane Campion, the Academy Award is the same movie. Due to the buzz surrounding such things, I had heard about the picture from recommendations (to not see it) and reputation. And this is not necessarily a “Oh, this guy is a Catholic and does not want to see a film about homosexuality,” thought. I will see just about anything outside of pornography, even if I do not agree with the material. This is part of the reason I started The Legionnaire. Actually, it had been a friend on the complete opposite end of the spectrum who warned me against it. Yet, when you do a podcast with someone, you listen to their input.
Set in Montana (though clearly filmed in New Zealand) in 1925, The Power of the Dog starts with two brothers, George (Jesse Plemons) and Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch). They live on their vast cattle ranch, sharing the same room. They both have their discontents, as is made evident, and though siblings, they deal with them in different ways. Phil throws himself into his work, while the more reserved George prefers civility and cleanliness, no easy task in their business. As a result, there is a growing divide between them, even when Phil reminds George of the way of life instilled in them by their mentor, the late Bronco Henry. Phil idolizes the memory of the man who taught him everything, while George wants to move on with his life. Nonetheless, they participate in a cattle drive into town. Once there, they dine at a boarding house run by Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst). She has everything laid out for the dusty ranch hands for their arrival, and recruits her effeminate, late-teenaged son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), on whom she dotes, to help serve the expected dinner. When Phil sits down for his supper, he notices the paper flowers that Peter made to go with the place-settings and can tell whose hands crafted them. In addition to be verbally abusive towards the kid, Phil takes one of them with Peter looking-on, lights it on fire with a candle, and uses it to light a cigarette. Peter is distressed and runs off, which also upsets the always sensitive Rose. Later on, George goes into the kitchen to comfort her, and it is the beginning of a relationship between the two of them. It also results in George spending more time in town, much to Phil’s dismay. His ill feelings are increased when George and Rose’s relationship blossoms into marriage. Phil accuses Rose of being after their money, and tries to get their parents to rescind their approval of the union by informing them that Rose’s previous husband had committed suicide. All the same, Rose moves into the house, and Phil hovers menacingly in the background. When their ranch plays host to their parents and the governor (Keith Carradine) and his wife, Phil refuses to take a bath and join the party, at least at first. Instead, he chooses to come in at the end, still unwashed, embarrassing George and Rose and causing the governor to hurriedly leave. The stress of the situation is only relieved for Rose by turning to alcohol, even though she previously had been a teetotaler. Her uneasiness is not relieved when Peter comes to stay for the summer after his first year in college studying medicine, and she continues drinking. At the outset, Phil resumes his bullying of the young man. This is made worse when Peter wanders into a glen where Phil takes some moments of solitude and reminisces about his old friend Bronco Henry (more about this later). Phil chases Peter away, but later begins to see in the kid a little bit of himself, and starts to teach Peter in the same manner that Bronco Henry had taught him. Peter begins taking long rides on his own, and despite warnings, decides to dissect a dead cow he comes across that had passed away due to anthrax. It is clear that there is a bond developing between Peter and Phil, much to Rose’s horror. Phil wants to cement his new friendship by making Peter a rope out of cowhide. This is derailed when Rose sells the skins Phil intends to use to local Native Americans, which enrages Phil. Seeking to assuage Phil, Peter tells the experienced cowboy that he has a hide that can be used for the rope. Phil does not know that it had been taken from a cow infected with anthrax. He also has an open cut on his hand. As a result, when he dunks the strips of leather into a water basin for cleaning, it exposes him to anthrax, and he dies soon thereafter. The film concludes with Peter looking down on his mother and George as they return from the funeral.
The suggestion throughout The Power of the Dog is that Phil is a repressed homosexual. There are covert and overt references at regular intervals. They include his handling of the paper flowers, his secret stash of pictures of Eugene Sandow, and a story he tells Peter about how he had once lay naked with Bronco Henry. I should add that in 1925, there was nothing homosexual about observing Eugene Sandow, who was widely known as an idol for male, heterosexual virility. Also, the situation with Bronco Henry is told as having been a matter of life or death, the two of them being caught in a storm and having to huddle together for warmth. This is actually an effective way of maintaining body heat, but that is not the suggestion. Whatever it is that is going on, Phil is clearly not willing to be open about who he is, and it causes him to act boorishly towards others, particularly Rose. He also refers to George as “fatso.” The film begins with a narration about how a real man does what he can to help his mother. Given Peter’s mistreatment at the hands of Phil (no matter how it changes), the knowledge he evidently possesses of medical procedures, and his mother’s unhappiness, it is obvious that he is the one that arranges Phil’s death. Again, please let me be clear that this is not about anything regarding homosexuality and the Catholic Church, but Peter’s actions did not shock me in the slightest. He comes off as a psychopath, and this is seen in the way he casually murders rabbits and dissects them. At the same time, I did not much care for Phil either. I cannot say that I would have liked to have seen him be an uncloseted gay man. Conversely, neither do I like think his behavior appropriate just because he is having a tough time dealing with his feelings. There are some wounds that only God can heal, and He does not seem to be taken into account, which is strange for a movie set in 1925. The 1920s, despite it also being known as the Jazz Age, was also a time of cultural conservatism. Yet, Faith is not mentioned.
As you can probably tell to this point, I do not recommend The Power of the Dog. It is also not entirely because of the subject matter. In fact, while I expected the murder, I also thought it was going to be much bloodier. It is also well shot and acted. No, the larger reason for not giving it my stamp of approval is that it moves at a glacial speed. No joke, I seriously just almost fell asleep writing the last couple of lines. What can I say? Afternoons. Still, it could work to cure insomnia, so it has that going for it.