The Power of the Dog is the tale of three men: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Set in 1925 Montana, the film follows two ranch brothers, Phil Burbank and George Burbank, who encounter the third one, Peter Gordon.
The most beautiful aspect of the narrative is that if you follow the story from the viewpoint of any one of these characters, you’ll get an entirely different understanding of the narrative. For Phil, the Power of the Dog is a tale of filling the heart void of love; for George, it is about finding a balance in a savage Cowboy colony, while for Peter, it is a tale of revenge and saving her mother from the attacks of a toxic man. Let’s dig deeper into the skins of these notable characters of the film whose choices and actions shape the course of action.
Major Spoilers Ahead
The Good – George Burbank
George Burbank wanted to study and become a civil servant, like a doctor or an engineer, maybe. But he didn’t pass through college and ended up on a ranch that he and his brother, Phil, inherited from their old man and the old lady. Though George never got a college degree, he never gave up on his pursuit of becoming a gentleman. He bathed regularly in a bathtub, unlike the cowboys who jumped into the river. George used soap, dressed well before leaving the house and greeted people with courtesy.
In George’s case, his brother Phil contaminated the ranch with his harsh tone, sexist comments, and glorified masculinity. Every time Phil intentionally hurt people’s feelings, George tried to make up for his brother’s rude behavior. He knew that he couldn’t make Phil understand the delicate mannerisms and thus distanced himself from the hound as much as he could.
Like all civilized men, George wasn’t wild or loud enough. Not that being a soft-spoken person is a flaw, but it was a trait that differentiated him from Phil. In simple terms, George wasn’t brave enough to face the wrath of Phil and hence always approached him with cautiousness. Rose Gordon, a widow whom George married, was also shaken by Phil’s tyranny.
To avoid Phil, George handled the paperwork for the ranch and stayed out of the house as much as possible. For this reason, George was absent for a major chunk of the film. However, for Rose, she couldn’t leave the ranch and had to face the “bad dog” each and every day.
The Bad Dog – Phil Burbank
Have you ever met a man who was once in love, then lost a lover or got his heartbroken, and then turned into a spiteful creature? Well, Phil Burbank was that man. A bully who was jealous, possessive, flamboyant, and toxic. But he wasn’t always like this.
The film began with George making a notable remark about Phil’s personality. He underlined that Phil had never tried the house bathroom since the brothers moved into the ranch. Well, Phill didn’t bathe or dress up well because he didn’t have a lover to impress or anyone else for that matter. He once loved someone, though. He was romantically involved with his mentor, Bronco Henry.
Phil Burbank and Bronco Henry
Phil frequently sang Bronco Henry’s praises, as if a boy or a girl were flaunting their romantic partners. One day, while strolling through the woods, Peter found a hidden stash of “physical culture” books that belonged to Bronco. With the look of these adult magazines, Peter very well perceived that Phil loved Bronco like a man loved a man.
Phil met Bronco when he was a young lad, almost the age of Peter. The brave cowboy taught Phil and George the trade of running a ranch. In the ending sequence, Phil tells Peter that Bronco once saved his life. They were caught up in the hills when the weather turned bad and had to take shelter under the open sky. At that moment, Bronco warmed Phil with his own body. One can imagine the scene with Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger from Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain.
But Bronco died. His absence created a vacuum in Phil’s heart. He wasn’t brave enough to come out of the closet. The feelings he suppressed turned vile. Phil became a tragic figure who didn’t dare to embrace another man. He had his reasons. Phil was a cowboy, and the period was extremely toxic. Instead of changing one’s environment, Phil changed himself. He followed Bronco’s advice, stating, “a man was made by patience in the odds against him.”
The Complexities of Being Phil Burbank
Phil Burbank hid himself under the old cowboy hat, inside those boots, and behind that manly attire. He never went to the river to bathe with other lads. Instead, he had his own personal spot because he was shy, probably. He needed a place where Phil could be Bronco’s Phil, and thus, when Peter once invaded that territory, Phil ran him out of it. Soon after the incident, Phil became friendly with Peter because he had witnessed Phil in his most vulnerable state. Peter saw Phil in the river with a piece of cloth that probably belonged to Bronco Henry.
Phil was an instrument player, and an artist of some sort. He was possessive of his belongings, like his brother, George, and his “hides,” for that matter of fact. He signed the register when he entered the house because probably the stance would have made George happy. Phil was caring but not in public.
He hated Rose because he believed that the woman stole his brother from him. But this hard attire soon melted away when Peter came into Phil’s life. Only Peter saw the “barking dog” shadow on the hills, which all the other cowboys failed to see. Phil knew that Peter was the man. And when Peter made the first move, by holding Peter’s hand without gloves, Phil knew that it was the beginning of a new Phil. The following day, after making love to Peter, Phil dressed in a suit, like George. Love cured Phil of his toxicity, but he didn’t know that love was going to be the last thing he would ever feel.
The Ugly – Peter Gordon
While Phil Burbank was a character carved out of complex situations, Peter Gordon was a man with a mission. He began the film with a statement that after his father’s death, his mother’s happiness was his responsibility, and he would go to any lengths to protect it.
Phil was brought up in 1920s Montana, the period and the land where nothing delicate grew up. The paper flowers symbolized the harsh lands and cruel men that inhabited them. It wasn’t a place for a rose to flourish. When Rose got married to George, Peter believed that his mother had moved on. Thinking she would be happy, Peter left the place and moved into a boarding school to become a doctor like his old man.
However, on the ranch, Phil emotionally and verbally attacked the delicate Rose. In Phil’s terror, she becomes an alcoholic to fight against the demons in her head. She even stopped playing the piano, which she loved as a young woman. When Peter saw his mother’s devastating state, he decided to remove the obstacle, like his father taught him.
Peter’s Ugly Revenge
While looking out for animals to experiment on, Peter found a dead cow in the hills one day. The creature was infected with anthrax, or blackleg. Peter picked the bacteria for his study. Finally, when Rose sold off all the “hides” on the ranch to the Indians in retaliation, Phil let loose a torrent of rage on her. Peter tried to control his anger, but then decided to silence the man who was constantly hurting his mother.
At that moment, Phil had an open wound on his wrist. Peter had often seen Phil weaving the rope and thus lured him with his sweet romantic gesture. Phil wanted to finish the rope before Peter left the ranch, so Peter gave him anthrax-infected “hides.”
The next morning, Phil finished the rope for Peter and wanted to give it to him personally. He even dressed in a black suit for the occasion, but Peter didn’t face him. Soon later, Phil died of anthrax poisoning, which was confirmed by the last convulsions. After Phil’s death, the love between George and Rose blossomed again. In Phil’s absence, Rose would probably become sober again, and the ranch would turn into a civil place. It was all Peter wanted.
In the ending sequence of The Power of the Dog, Peter hid the infected rope under his bed and burned the bridge that connected him to the toxic man.
Who was the Dog in The Power of the Dog?
In the biblical phrase, “The Power of the Dog,” the word “dog” refers to a person who attacks the vulnerable. For example, the great and powerful Roman empire conspired against Jesus Christ and crucified him. In The Power of the Dog, both Peter and Phil could be perceived as the dog.
In the beginning, Phil bullied a vulnerable young Peter, who was grieving for his lost father. He attacked Peter with his poisonous words and made toxic remarks. However, at the end of the film, it was Peter who infected Phil’s vulnerable wound. Phil made some grave errors in life, but he didn’t deserve a death sentence for them.
If Peter had let Phil live, then maybe some love and some belongingness would have changed Phil’s demeanor. He was specially dressed for the boy on that day and wanted to give him the rope as a gesture of his love for him. But he died before he could be transformed. For young blood like Peter, the principles of non-violence are a bit out of sight. The young don’t believe that love can change a man or stop a war.
Art is about flawed characters. In the realm of the Power of the Dog, both Peter and Phil had their choices. While Phil chose to be bad, Peter decided to be ugly. However, no matter what words we use to define them, they weren’t innocent in their actions. They were both guilty of the harm they caused to each other and other people around them. Through the narrative, Thomas Savage beautifully described the complexities of human beings.
The Power of the Dog is a 2021 Period Drama Thriller film written and directed by Jane Campion. The story is based on Thomas Savage’s novel of the same name.