Movie Review: The Power of the Dog (2021)

The Burbank brothers jointly own a ranch in Montana of 1925. Both are bachelors.

Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the rough cowboy who manages the physical work on the ranch. He is rough, uncouth, obnoxious, brutal actually, and as a result of those qualities he happens to be successful running the cattle ranch and the bunch of cowboys who do the work.

George (Jesse Plemons) takes care of the business side of the ranch. He is quiet, gentle, calm, sensitive and somewhat overweight. On a cattle drive on horses, while Phil wears chaps, George wears a suit and tie, sometimes even a bow tie. They are wealthy enough to be part of Montana society, and when the governor is in town, George invites him to the ranch for dinner.

The brothers have deep respect for one another, almost to the point of co-dependency. Phil calls George “Fatso” in front of the men, and George grudgingly accepts it. When Phil is expected to make a showing at the table with the governor, George tells him awkwardly that he should wash up before joining. Phil stinks.

One day, on a cattle drive, George meets Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), the widow inn-keeper with an awkward but smart young son who is studying to become a doctor. George and Rose get married, and the dynamics on the ranch change drastically.

The Power of the Dog is a highly acclaimed film with great reviews, and yet, I could do very little with it. From the very beginning, I found it very slow-moving. For the most part I didn’t know what was going on, I still don’t know what the power of the dog means. I had to look it up. There is a bible verse:

Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.

If you can figure this out, please comment here and let me know.

There are many mysteries about the plot and the story, and what is actually going on. One scene has to do with anthrax, which caused me to look up the origin of the substance:

Anthrax is most common in agricultural regions of Central and South America, sub-Saharan Africa, central and southwestern Asia, southern and Eastern Europe, and the Caribbean. Anthrax is rare in the United States, but sporadic outbreaks do occur in wild and domestic grazing animals such as cattle or deer.

There is a lot of mystery around this film, and perhaps it is one of those that requires you to read the novel first. It is based on Thomas Savage’s  1967 novel of the same name. Here is the description in Amazon:

Set in the wide-open spaces of the American West, The Power of the Dog is a stunning story of domestic tyranny, brutal masculinity, and thrilling defiance from one of the most powerful and distinctive voices in American literature. The novel tells the story of two brothers — one magnetic but cruel, the other gentle and quiet — and of the mother and son whose arrival on the brothers’ ranch shatters an already tenuous peace. From the novel’s startling first paragraph to its very last word, Thomas Savage’s voice — and the intense passion of his characters — holds readers in thrall.

Maybe I need to read the book to understand it.

Everything else would be speculation.

4 thoughts on “Movie Review: The Power of the Dog (2021)

  1. Kristen Aliotti

    I heard this was brutal and violent, so I decided not to watch it, in spite of my family cattle rancher relatives and my love of the wide open spaces of Montana.

    However, the author of the original book (THOMAS SAVAGE) also wrote THE SHEEP QUEEN, earlier named I HEARD MY SISTER CALL (SPEAK?) MY NAME. I read a tiny review of it in The New Yorker about 40 years ago, got it from the library, and was enthralled by the writing and the subject. It is very moving, and I don’t remember any violence. I bought a copy and passed it around to my reader-mother and my 5 reader-siblings across the country. All loved it. When my mother died a year ago, she still had a copy on her bookshelf. I now have it. Sadly, Thomas Savage died a few years ago. He had lived for a long time with his wife on the coast of Maine.

    1. Wow, thanks for all the insight. I need to read some of the Savage works.
      No, the movie is not “brutal or violent” in the graphic sense you’d expect. It’s very, very subtle. Most of the brutality is in your own head. It’s more psychological brutality. You’ll be fine watching it, maybe even bored like I was.

  2. Bill West

    I also didn’t read the book or really even know there was one until reading your review. I really liked the movie however and thought it deserved a best motion picture academy award which it didn’t receive. First, I think the cinematography was maybe the best feature of the movie and the one, I think, they did score an Oscar for out of ten nominations.

    Here is my interpretation of the parts of the movie you did not mention in your review. The innkeeper’s son, Peter, in this movie was the dog from the title. He had an obsessive loyalty to his emotionally fragile mother and he had a huge and under appreciated intellect as alluded to with his acceptance to medical school. His ambivalent sexuality also were important in the outcome of the film.

    This combination of intense loyalty and intellect along with the brutal abuse he and his mother were forced to endure at the hand of Phil’s toxic masculinity were the foundation for the eventual last act. While it is clear that Phil used Peter as an easy foil due to unmanly affectation, there was clearly an undercurrent of sexually attraction he carried for the boy. He took him under his wing and introduced him to the finer points of being a cowboy in the same way Phil’s mentor trained him. The true nature of Phil’s relationship with his mentor, as well as with Peter, is left, I suppose, to the viewer’s imagination.

    In any event, Peter used this relationship to exact his ultimate revenge for himself and, more importantly, for his mother. Knowing how to hand braid a lariat due to Phil’s tutorship, he kills a cow and uses it’s festering hide, which from his medical training he is sure is been a breeding ground for the anthrax bacilli. He carefully weaves the lariat from the strips of infected hide being sure to guard himself from infection. He presents it to Phil as a gift thereby exacting his ultimate revenge with all the cunning his personality has provided for him.

    Again this is merely my interpretation based on filling in a lot of blank spaces offered by the telling of the tale. I may be right or wrong but for me in the end, this is a great work of art for that very reason. Any art form that allows the viewer to construct their own interpretation whether it is the true intention of the author/artist/musician whatever, is a successful piece of craftsmanship. Not sure if the book would lead me to a different conclusion but now that I know it exists, I’m game to find out.

    1. First, thanks for these comments. There are some spoilers here that I would not put into a review directly but annotated. However, I missed some of this detail. I got the fact that he took anthrax from the carcass, but I did NOT realize he took strips with him for the rope. That puts it all together. Also, making Peter the dog all makes sense now that you put it that clearly. It’s almost time to watch the thing again to get the nuances.

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