At first, in The Power of the Dog, what we get is a collection of tense and tender scenes. The ones where Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) mocks men for effeminate manners (Peter, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) and plumpness (George, played by Jesse Plemons) are as taut as Phil’s ripped muscles. And the ones where George and Rose (Kirsten Dunst) are together (or alone) doing anything – like dancing – are suffused with warmth. Oh, how you wish the camera always stays with these two. But life, and the movies, is all about moving forward. Bliss is regularly undercut by misery. And so, Phil reappears to reintroduce stress. You don’t want to be in the same room with him.

The camera often forces us to look up at Phil, accentuating his dominating presence. His voice is deep and intimidating. Since George and Peter lack a sturdy build, he looks down on them (he teases Peter and burns his flower made out of paper). It would have been easy to make a complete villain out of Phil, but writer-director Jane Campion allows us to see the soft, forlorn side of this man. He stands alone and sings with a drink in his hand while others dance with a partner. Phil has no close friends or a caring lover. His rude behaviour has crushed his relationship with his brother, George. That is why he turns to inanimate objects for consolation. Phil smokes a cigarette as if kissing it, plays his musical instrument as if making love to it, and touches himself using a handkerchief. That handkerchief belongs to someone known as Bronco Henry. Henry and Phil share a past of passionate proportions. 

But all that is history now. The Phil we (and the characters) deal with is as hard as a rock. Any softness within him is masked by a solid exterior (at least, this is how he presents himself in front of others). Neither he is at peace, nor is he allowing others to live in peace. As if taunting George and Peter wasn’t enough, he manages to discourage Rose as well. In a biting scene, he defeats her determination through music. This is one of the instances where so much is spoken without any words. Notice carefully in other places, and you will find communication taking place through eyes and even sharing of a cigarette. 

If even after knowing some things about Phil, you don’t find yourself sympathizing with him, that’s because he is a man who does not want your – or anyone else’s – pity. There may be some good in him somewhere, but there is no denying that he won’t ever become a good person himself. He stands tall like a mountain between the happiness of the characters. If you want your pretty rose, you have to eliminate this thorn. 

I mentioned above that Phil could never become a good person. Well, that’s the thought I had for most of the film. However, as The Power of the Dog moved towards its conclusion, it became so layered and complicated that I began to doubt my judgment. Maybe love can change Phil after all. Maybe his softness could overcome his tough-guy persona. Maybe his attitude can undergo change. All I have are these “maybe theories.” Because we are left with only speculations. The Power of the Dog ends on a satisfying note, but it also leaves you with a pensive smile. Nothing in this world is truly black and white. Human beings are incredibly complicated. And this film understands and embraces the complications.

The Power of the Dog, On Netflix, Embraces Human Complications, Film Companion

Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.

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