The Power Of The Dog: Scenic Tale Of Loneliness & Toxic Masculinity Wrapped In Malice

The Power Of The Dog is based on a 1967 Western novel, written by Thomas Savage.

Yamini Pustake Bhalerao
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The Power Of The Dog, Oscars 2022 Best Picture
In one of the most shocking scenes from Jane Campion's Western psychological thriller The Power Of The Dog, we see one of its leads Phil Burbank castrate a calf barehanded. Phil cuts the skin on the testicles of the calf with a knife and then proceeds to hold the unwashed, bloodied tool between his teeth so that he can put both his hands to use. The scene sums up the world of the film - raw, repulsive and drenched in testosterone.

I dove into The Power Of The Dog without any context on the film, except the fact that it has scored 12 nominations for the 94th Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay categories. Since most of us have zero to little exposure when it comes to Western classics (the only one I have watched is Mackenna's Gold) it is hard for us to understand the significance of the film being set in 1925 on a Montana based cattle ranch and yet being devoid of gun duels, fights, etc. However, the setting does help in creating an atmosphere of merciless beauty which is suffocating, despite being expansive.

The Power Of The Dog revolves around two bachelor brothers Phil and George, played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons, who have been running a cattle ranch with a bunch of cowboys at their disposal for 25 years. Phil and George have contrasting personalities. While they both have inherited the ranch from their parents, it is Phil who calls the shots. The workers see him as their leader - all he has to do is to whistle and they will leave the room. George on the other hand is quiet, barely responding to his brother's taunts.

The grown men share a bedroom, even sleeping side by side in hotel rooms without any discomfort - a mark of their dysfunctional relationship. For Phil, the display of masculinity is an important part of his existence. He doesn't bathe, speaks roughly, bullies an effeminate teen son of a widow and seldom lets his guard down. And there's a good reason for that - Phil is a closeted gay man, in love with one Bronco Henry, a long-gone cowboy who was also his mentor.

Set in his ways, Phil is miffed when George marries the said widow, Rose Gordon (Kristen Dunst) also bringing her teenage son named Phil into their lives. The wedding proves to be the turning point in the film, which now turns into a psychological thriller, from being a Western drama. Phil not only thinks that Rose is a gold digger, but he also feels left out and jealous when his brother moves into the adjacent room with paper-thin walls with his new bride. Is Phil in love with his brother? Does he see himself as George's lifelong companion? Or is he simply upset that his brother has found love while he has to continue with his lonely and secretive existence? Campion doesn't spell out the dynamics but Phil's jealousy doesn't escape our attention.

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Soon, Phil begins playing mind games with Rose, shaking her confidence, leaving her feeling trapped in the house with him and eventually pushing her towards alcoholism. The sight of Rose sneaking a swig from a bottle that she has hidden in a stinky alley on the property gives him sadistic pleasure in which he basks. Rose's son Peter, who had been lodged into boarding for studies, comes over to the ranch for his summer break and observes how Phil makes Rose miserable. Now Peter is a gay man too. Phil picks on Peter and roughs him up because for him being macho and remaining closeted is the only way people like him must exist. Why should Phil get to express his sexual identity, when all he can do is to recede to a desolate spot to remember his lost love?

Peter, on the other hand, uses his sexuality to bait Phil in order to make his mother's life less miserable. Will he succeed? Watch the film to know more.

Jane Campion's psychological thriller is a treat to watch. She uses the ranch, the mountains surrounding it (the film was shot in New Zealand, despite being set in Montana, United States) and the Burbank mansion to express emotions like suffocation, loneliness, frustration, ruggedness and eeriness.

Cumberbatch as Phil is flawless, mixing vulnerability, pretentious masculinity and a bunch of other emotions in right proportions. But then we do not expect anything less from the performer now. Dunst and Plemons fit their parts perfectly, but it is Kodi Smit-McPhee as Peter who steals the show right from under the noses of his co-actors. It is mesmerising to watch McPhee play the role of a fragile teen who can be unexpectedly ruthless and seductive when needed.

">The Power Of The Dog, like most Oscar-nominated films, won't be a crowd-pleaser. It is slow and requires a patient viewing till the mind games begin. But if you invest yourself into Campion's vision, she will transport you to a dusty harsh world where you can see the animalistic humans deal with heartache, insecurity and sheer hatred and push each other's buttons to have their way.

Views expressed are the author's own.

Benedict Cumberbatch Kristen Dunst The Power Of The Dog