The Power of the Dog

Based on a 1967 novel of the same name by Thomas Savage, The Power of the Dog is the title of a new movie directed by Jane Campion and just released on Netflix where I saw it. Campion first came to prominence with her fantastic film, “The Piano” released in 1993. Instead of a mute woman dispatched to New Zealand to marry a wealthy landowner in that classic of twenty-eight years ago, we see a confident proprietor of an inn (Rose Gordon – Kirsten Dunst) become a quivering, frightened woman when she married a relatively rich cattle rancher in Montana – though the movie was shot in New Zealand where Campion was born. Instead of a young daughter, the woman has a teenage son, Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) who creates beautiful, intricate and delicate paper flower arrangements out of napkins for the tables on which he waits. He is a devoted son who has vowed always to protect his mother.

Like “The Pianist,” lust lurks so well below the surface in the film that it is not always clear where the source lies or who is the target. But left in the present is the saddle and spurs of Phil’s mentor, Bronco Henry, and a large white handkerchief with his initials that Phil carries stuffed in the front of his pants. As he pulls the handkerchief out and inhales deeply through his nose, we quickly learn why Phil evades washing. Philip is tough as nails, uncouth and unkempt, full of both malice and malevolence; he also smells. When he does bathe, it is not in a bathtub like his brother George, but in a mud bath in the wilds. He washes the mud off in a dive in a clear, freshwater pool.  But the glen is hidden. And the filth is not just dirt and mud. Phil is only seen naked in his sacred private place in the woods. He returns to civilization to “diss” his brother and call him Fatso.           

The cause of Rose’s evisceration is not her husband, who is star spangled solicitous, but his verbally cruel brother and co-owner of the ranch. Phil has the sharp tongue of a snake fueled by a raging and bitter anger – of what we do not know and never learn definitively from his inscrutable character. Even though on the surface he is a marauding presence, behind the scowls and steely stares lies an opaque personality. But we suspect the problem is his self-identity. He intimidates. He rages. He is a marauding menace. He looks at those who displease him with snake eyes. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Phil Burbank – wearing spurs, chaps and even a soiled cowboy hat.

George (played with superb self-control by Jesse Plemons), on the other hand, is quiet and taciturn and neat-as-a-pin, dressed in a suit even when on the cattle drive. George is the one who marries the young widow, Rose. George admires his wife’s piano playing – though it is clearly not good even though she once accompanied silent films                                                                         

In contrast, Phil plucks away at a banjo and (spoiler alert) well into the movie demonstrates he is a mean player. But his playing took me back to the foreboding of the five-string banjo played in the film, “Deliverance.” Rough in his ways and tough in his manner, we gradually learn of his hidden and tender side – (again, spoiler alert). He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from college. He is cultivated even though he harasses Rose and castrates bull calves with his bare hands. He is a stopped-up volcano ready at any moment to blow his top. But he does not. Instead, he educates the woman’s teenage son and cultivates his friendship after spending the first half of the movie mocking his effeminate ways. And he makes a gift for him – a lasso out of strips of rawhide.

The tension between the wild west, the rough unforgiving hills that surround the dry-as-dirt ranch, contrasts with the elegant home with its drab dried clapboard exterior but an interior of dark wood paneling, with both bookcases and animal heads against the walls. We could be in an old castle in Germany.

But this a frontier movie, not one of the open west and of freedom, but of a claustrophobic, melancholy repetitive and boring life seething with repressed libidos that take their pleasures at the end of a cattle drive in a house of pleasure filled with drink and dancing. The cowhands seem playful and full of camaraderie and their persecution of the effeminate son is relatively benign. However, it is all immersed in a sand sea of loneliness.

The shots are iconic. The cowboys walking in a broad and almost straight line – not just walking – striding. These and the wide expanse shots of nature contrast with the close-ups on the rare flowers shown in the movie.  But the give away takes place when Phil suddenly befriends Peter and learns quickly that Peter can read the clouds. Peter sees and describes a cloud formation that looks like a growling dog. And the stage is finally set for Peter’s rage at the mistreatment of his mother to creep out as he dons his plastic gloves (did they have plastic gloves in 1925?) and cuts away his own strips of rawhide from a steer that had died of anthrax.

Phil had fed Rose with a toxic diet of disdain and dismissal, reducing his sister-in-law to a helpless alcoholic poisoned by Phil’s resentment. Her son slyly and surreptitiously delivers his revenge. It is a furtive consummation of a slow but rising burn and an ironic twist on restorative justice.

But who is the dog? Phil? Does Peter see Phil in the form of a menacing cur? A clue can be found in the source of the phrase in the title of the film. Verses 13-19 of Psalm 22 read:

13 Great bulls have surrounded me; the mighty ones of Bashan encompassed me. יגסְבָבוּנִי פָּרִ֣ים רַבִּ֑ים אַבִּירֵ֖י בָשָׁ֣ן כִּתְּרֽוּנִי:
14 They opened their mouth against me [like] a tearing, roaring lion. ידפָּצ֣וּ עָלַ֣י פִּיהֶ֑ם אַ֜רְיֵ֗ה טֹרֵ֥ף וְשֹׁאֵֽג:
15 I was spilled like water, and all my bones were separated; my heart was like wax, melting within my innards. טוכַּמַּ֥יִם נִשְׁפַּכְתִּי֘ וְֽהִתְפָּֽרְד֗וּ כָּֽל־עַצְמ֫וֹתָ֥י הָיָ֣ה לִ֖בִּי כַּדּוֹנָ֑ג נָ֜מֵ֗ס בְּת֣וֹךְ מֵעָֽי:
16 My strength became dried out like a potsherd, and my tongue cleaves to my palate; and You set me down in the dust of death. טזיָ֘בֵ֚שׁ כַּחֶ֨רֶשׂ | כֹּחִ֗י וּ֖לְשׁוֹנִי מֻדְבָּ֣ק מַלְקוֹחָ֑י וְלַֽעֲפַר־מָ֥וֶת תִּשְׁפְּתֵֽנִי:
17 For dogs have surrounded me; a band of evildoers has encompassed me, like a lion, my hands and feet. יזכִּֽי־סְבָב֗וּנִי כְּלָ֫בִ֥ים עֲדַ֣ת מְ֖רֵעִים הִקִּיפ֑וּנִי כָּֽ֜אֲרִ֗י יָדַ֥י וְרַגְלָֽי:
18 I tell about all my bones. They look and gloat over me. יחאֲסַפֵּ֥ר כָּל־עַצְמוֹתָ֑י הֵ֥מָּה יַ֜בִּ֗יטוּ יִרְאוּ־בִֽי:
19 They share my garments among themselves and cast lots for my raiment. יטיְחַלְּק֣וּ בְגָדַ֣י לָהֶ֑ם וְעַל־לְ֜בוּשִׁ֗י יַפִּ֥ילוּ גוֹרָֽל:

The great threatening bulls are like a lion. So are the dogs – not “the” dog, singular.  The bulls and dogs “surround me.” I cannot escape and I am torn to pieces – bones, sinews everywhere competing for the torn fragments of my clothes. In extreme fear, my tongue clings to my palate as the mouth of someone in extreme distress becomes like a root out of dry ground with no saliva left to wet his mouth. He can only taste the dust of death. His heart melts. These are verses of a horrible nightmare located in Bashan in northeastern Jordan.

The Psalm is famous as a prophetic anticipation of what happens to Jesus, especially with the words of verse 2, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (See Matthew 27:46) However, as Hebrew scripture and commentary, the reference is not seen as being about a Jewish messiah but, rather, a reference to King David (though Rashi believed it was to Queen Esther) who has lost touch with God and lost his or her way. The verses are about lost faith and the feeling of being torn to pieces in that state.

If you have seen the documentary One Of Us about the 2% of Hasidim who leave the fold and escape into the secular world or, at the very least, the non-Hasidic world, you get a sense of the meaning of the loneliness, the feeling of being like a worm when you are mocked and ex-communicated. The only salvation according to the Psalm is return, tshuva, full acceptance of divine sovereignty and total submission to His will and, therefore, the will of the community.

Who fits that experience in The Power of the Dog? One might think it is Peter for isn’t he the one shunned and seen as other by the cowboy community? Though Peter is shunned by some and surrounded by those who open their lips and shake their heads, Peter is not the one who blasphemes, who has lost his way. It is Philip. It is his excruciating loneliness we feel in the film. Peter is always loved by at least his mother, secure in his mother’s womb and at her breasts, and later in the film, by Philip himself. Only Phil remains isolated and unattached. And, in the end, it is Phil who is persecuted for his sins. Peter is simply the avenging angel. It is Peter who possesses the power of the dog. It is Phil who, in spite of the brave and blustery front he puts on, feels torn asunder and ex-communicated even as he, like King David, continues his arbitrary monarchial rule. He remains very far from salvation. For God no longer speaks to him. He has lost his faith and his way. The only one Phil worships is Bronco Henry in whom he has an idolatrous faith.

But could it be Rose who is attacked by the power of the dog? After all, it is the prophetess Esther (5:1), when she stands in the inner court of the king’s house and then in the chamber of idols, who is abandoned by God. It is Rose who descends into the depths of alcoholism and who is abandoned by the divine presence. It is Rose who suffers from inadvertent sin rather than any sin committed against another. It is Esther who called Ahaseurus “dog” and calls out to save her soul from the sword and not only from the power of the dog.

But the reference in the film could be to both Phil and Rose. Phil suffers the anguish of a broken spirit and dies without redemption while Rose is redeemed and recovers from her alcoholic fog. Philip is both the power of the dog who also cowers secretly in fear of his very different version of the power of the dog, the dog who turns out in the end and surprisingly to be Peter.

Watch the movie.