by Alvin G. Burstein, PhD
The Power of the Dog is a remarkable movie, dense, complex, and twisted, like the rawhide lariat one of its protagonists works to prepare as a gift. Filmed in New Zealand, the story is set in 1920’s Montana. The cinematography captures the sweep of plains, the towering mountains, the thunder of cattle herds, and the ardors of a hard scrabble herding existence. The beauty of the equine creatures who play supporting roles is impressive.
There appear to be four main protagonists: brothers George and Phil Burbank, who run the ranch, widowed Rose Gordon, who works at an inn where the herders stop during a drive, and Rose’s teenage son Peter. However, there is a fifth character, one who has died before the movie opens, Bronco Henry. He had served as a mentor to Phil, who treasures Bronco’s saddle as a memento. Another memento is a kerchief of Bronco’s that Phil uses while pleasuring himself.
The action opens with the herders flocking into Rose’s establishment, tired and hungry for food and thirsty for entertainment. Rose scurries to get the drovers fed at tables adorned by paper flowers that her young son, Peter, has fashioned. Lank and grimy, Phil makes ongoing jibes at his “fatso” brother and at George’s preference for mufti—a fedora rather than a sombrero and eschewing chaps. Once at the inn, Phil jeers at Peter for his prissiness. When Phil sees that George is attracted to Rose, he sneers at her as a gold digger looking for an easy touch.
Despite Phil’s obdurate disapproval, George and Rosa marry. A crisis erupts in the new household of four when George invites the brothers’ parents for a celebratory meal. George, eager for social status, also invites the governor and his wife. To entertain and impress his guests, he has purchased a fancy piano, on which Rose—having played piano at the local movie house—is to perform. Rose is terrified by the challenge. Phil tortures her by mocking her stumbling piano practice with a virtuoso rendition of her practice piece on his guitar. George, blind to the tension Rose is feeling, feels constrained to warn Phil that he should bathe before the dinner and dress appropriately.
When the guests gather around the piano, Rose’s stage fright overcomes her, requiring red- faced apologies. Phil shows up late, begrimed and work worn, declining to shake hands or socialize “because I stink.”
Although scruffy, dirty Phil had earned an honors degree at Yale, but he has transformed himself into someone who parades his dirtiness and mocks social convention and its niceties. The ideal that shaped that transformation was Phil’s mentor, Bronco. This tension between social convention and a rejection of it is a central theme.
Phil decides to teach Peter to ride and lures him into explorations of the mountains. The counterpoint to this development is Rose’s slide into alcoholism fueled by her feelings of social inadequacy and fear of losing her son to Phil.
During one of their mountain excursions Phil tells Peter that Bronco saved his life in a bitter winter storm by warming his body with his own. Though Phil avoids the question of whether they were naked together, Peter has discovered a trove of male nude photos belonging to Bronco. Peter responds to Phil’s story by confession that as a young boy, he had discovered his father having hanged himself, and had to cut the body down.
Their mentoring relationship feeds Phil’s decision to fashion a braided rawhide lariat for Peter, who supplies him with rawhide for the project. Unknown to Phil, the hide came from a steer that had died of anthrax. Phil dies of the infection, suffering, the doctor tells the family, dreadful pain and convulsions at the end. We see Phil’s face being carefully shaved and his body dressed in a conventional suit for his burial, finally conforming to social convention.
Peter does not attend the funeral. He has acquired the lethal lariat. Carefully avoiding its touch, he hides it under his bed. He reads, aloud, Psalm 22:20: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.” The film closes with Peter looking through his window, watching his mother and stepfather embrace, leaving the audience to ponder his motivations and the meaning of his recitation.