Netflix’ crown jewel ‘Power of the Dog’ shines

Images courtesy Netflix.

9/10 The Power of the Dog came onto my radar around its November 2021 release as “the toxic masculinity movie,” which was an immediate turn-off because I have a lot of difficulty with that term. It’s a very specific condition that gets thrown around a lot more than feels appropriate, and I always end up consuming the media through a filter of how to prove it was inappropriately applied here, but then it usually is applied appropriately, and I have to come to grips again with how big a problem this very narrow phenomenon of externalized male insecurity is in modern American society. Thinking about these things, I don’t get a great read on the movie itself. 

Fortunately, The Power of the Dog was released on Netflix, so I could just watch it again.

Montana, 1925- Widowed hostess Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) and her son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) move in with her wealthy new husband George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) and his brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch). Phil Burbank is such an insufferable prick that he turns daily life on the ranch into a question of how best to avoid him.

The Power of the Dog is an undeniable masterpiece thickly coated in symbolism and nuance. Just about the only thing that isn’t open to and begging for interpretation is Phil Burbank’s incredible toxicity.

First thing’s first – it’s gorgeous. New Zealand native writer/director/producer Jane Campion returns viewers to the country that became Middle Earth, this time standing in for the American West. The mostly unsullied island at the end of the world is just as beautiful and versatile as it was 20 years ago. Kirsty Cameron’s costume design and Grant Major’s production design are spectacular, especially the play between the hostilely bright Montana plains and the gloomy interiors of the Burbanks’ farm. I read somewhere that The Power of the Dog “makes its houses haunted,” and that’s a great description you’re always waiting for Phil Burbank to suddenly attack or jump out from near in the frame.

The Power of the Dog is an opaque, subtle film. Every conversation is short, stilted and only reveals the characters’ desired performances, not their real thoughts, and when true motivations are revealed, they beg questions about what else is hidden.

There isn’t a protagonist, which means there’s no antagonist, and most interpretations are going to be a reflection of the viewer. Is this a story about Phil Burbank being such a big problem that he brings out everyone else’s flaws, or are his grievances valid, and the worst that he sees in the other characters are accurate assessments of them? There’s no reason to think that George Burbank isn’t as stupid as his brother says, or that Rose Gordon isn’t deliberately gold-digging him. And what’s the ethical calculus on Peter Gordon here?

Benedict has finally mastered the American accent. I’m so proud.

Attention can’t help but center on Phil Burbank, both as the most motivated and charismatic character and for Cumberbatch’s overwhelming turn. Phil Burbank is gay, and he behaves the way that he does because he’s in the closet, and the closet is a miserable place to be. His bullying is birthed from his own insecurity about his masculinity, but also from his perception about how aggressive men should be, particularly men in leadership positions – but at the same time, his sexuality can’t possibly be secret. His men must see him sitting alone in the brothel, and they must hear the disgust with which he regards women.

The burr in his saddle is real and was put there by Peter Gordon, who is outwardly effeminate and also male-attracted, but is completely comfortable with himself and his way of being. This isn’t just sexual, Peter instinctively emulates things that Phil believes to be unique about himself, best illustrated by the dog shape in the mountain outside the Burbank ranch, which only Phil sees until Peter arrives. How enraging it must be to have spent his whole life in outward denial and self-loathing, afraid of how he’ll be perceived, only to see someone, a child, be comfortable and at ease as he’d like to be, casually shrugging off the bullying he’s spent his entire life in fear of.

My own reading of the film mostly centers on Bronco Henry, the long-dead cowboy who taught Phil Burbank everything he knows, whom Phil reveres and enforces reverence of among his crew. It’s heavily implied that Henry was Phil’s first male lover, the chance at authenticity and happiness that he’s spent a quarter century grieving, but I don’t think this is just grief. Henry was explicitly his senior, his teacher and presumptively his lover, that doesn’t sound like a happy, healthy setup. I’d wager their relationship was much less rosy than the picture Phil paints of it, probably similar to his abrasive relationship with Peter Gordon once he starts tolerating the younger man’s presence, and that he picked up most of his bullying tactics directly from Henry.

The “power of the dog” comes from Psalm 22:20 in which it’s basically a metaphor about bullying, but in the film, it also refers to the power of the dog shadow visible on the mountain. Only Phil Burbank can see it, one of the healthier things he pins his pride on, but when Peter Gordon arrives, he sees it instantly as well.

The film as a whole is about performances, what characters can and can’t hide, what they can and can’t change about themselves and the gap, or lack thereof, between the mask and the wearer. Again, it’s Phil Burbank who illustrates this the most clearly near the film’s end. When a character does something thoughtful and sweet for him, but he still only knows how to react with anger.

This was supposed to be Netflix’ victory lap after several years of give-and-take with Hollywood, but then, like a slap in the face, an Apple+ property that almost no one had seen snatched Best Picture and most of the attention out from underneath it. The Power of the Dog is a much better and more interesting film than CODA, if one that requires more of the viewer.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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