‘The Power of the Dog’: Desire is a Double-Edged Sword

Desire is vast; it’s also a double-edged sword. Much like love, desire, as Euripedes put it, doesn’t win the game. It changes it.

In Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog (adapted from Thomas Savage’s novel of the same name), wealthy brothers Phil and George Burbank (played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Jesse Plemons) meet a widowed inn-owner Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) and her son Peter (Kodi-Smit McPhee) during a cattle drive. Phil, upon seeing Peter’s effeminate mannerisms, humiliates and mocks him in front of the dinner audience. Opposite him, George simply continues to eat in silence. Later, we see George come back to help Rose in the inn; they become infatuated and would soon marry.

George and Rose’s marriage proves to be good for both of them, with Rose finally having enough money to send Phil to medical school. But like all houses, the Burbank home comes with a ghost. Phil haunts the floors and walls; his stench and grief over his deceased mentor Bronco Henry permeates through the furniture and lingers over the vastness of the ranch. Rose immediately knows this, for as soon as she arrives, Phil makes it clear that he thinks Rose married George for money.

There’s a moment where George and Rose enjoy the peace of their companionship prior to the latter’s move to the Burbank house. But her arrival in the family home feels like George’s subversion of his brother. George’s love and attention for Phil aren’t on him now. Her presence challenges Phil’s power in the household and it becomes apparent that she’s the one Phil would torment. 

For if he cannot have the love that was taken from him or take sole ownership of what little love he has from his brother, why should she have these things so easily? There’s a kindred between these two characters, but Phil would rather decimate that connection with distrust and anger.

Jane Campion shows us mountains and weathered lands as if to illustrate that vast desire these characters yearn for. But what really shapes this film is how she sees male desire. From the very moment Phil comes in, there’s an enigmatic feeling to him. He is foul, undesirable, and unyielding. Yet every other man in the ranch, including his own brother, looks up to him. A hardened man is often desirable in the way they set up the standard of building walls. It keeps them isolated and protected from peering eyes. Phil wields himself against these curious eyes, wraps himself in the dirt, embraces the stench and ugliness; stands his ground. To confront is to tangle oneself into the ugliness of it all. Here in ugliness, Phil commands, modeling himself after his late mentor Bronco Henry, whom he reveres at any chance he gets.

While the first act is torturously demanding of your attention, it eventually rewards your patience by the time the film finds its footing. Its pacing is akin to that of peeling and cutting up an onion: each layered cut prevents you from continuing because of its putrid way of bringing tears into your eyes. Likewise, each revelation about the characters, especially Phil, falls into place when we finally realize that Bronco Henry was more than a mentor to him; he was the only man Phil had ever loved.

But as we get to know Phil, Peter quietly stands by once he returns to the narrative. Spending the summer with his mother on the ranch, he continues his studies as a medical student capturing and dissecting any rabbits he could find.

McPhee’s sly and calculating movements render him a counterpart to Cumberbatch’s Burbank. Peter is thin, effeminate, and true to his nature: his hands are gentle as they are necessary for performing animal dissections and surgery in contrast to Burbank’s calloused ones. 

Desire is vast, and you put on masks, to cover it. It keeps unwanted eyes out. Yet the persistence of yearning is relentless, and all you can do is haunt the space you occupy like a ghost. And all ghosts beg to be seen.

And seen it does: Campion captures the specific moment where Peter sees Phil: lying on the grass caressing Bronco Henry’s handkerchief throughout his body, his body clean and his face at peace and in ecstasy. There’s nothing else to strip because here, Phil and Bronco Henry are together. It feels invasive, and only when Phil finally sees Peter does the angry ghost come back.

Because as soon as Peter discovers who Phil is, Phil changes. He yields. Because Peter knows what Bronco Henry knew. He sees Phil and what Phil sees in the mountains. “It’s a barking dog,” Peter points out to Phil at one point. There is power in being seen.

Here, the film coils eagerly, and the tension present from the beginning adds more depth as Phil and Peter spend more time together. There’s something disorienting about the tension in this film: it’s so vast it unnerves you and so tight that it begs to be let out. To be let out is to allow oneself to be touched. Over and over again until it comes gushing forth with the truth. It’s occasionally cheeky too, with its phallic symbols and the maleness of the whole scenery. 

I suppose there’s something else to be said about the way women film male desire. Beneath, its putrid anger and stench lie something so sacred; it will not go down without a fight. Rarely do they yield so easily, thanks to centuries of toxic masculinity. Peter knows this, and with his own agenda, he sets up the trap. “For what will I be if I could not protect my mother?” he narrates at the start of the film.

Rose, who had spent much of the film driven to alcoholism because of Phil’s constant terrorizing, cannot help but cower and distance herself. There’s a moment where we might get a glimpse of Phil finally yielding to Peter as they both grow closer, but it is quite apparent in this narrative that men do not change at the slightest. They only reveal their true nature, and when unnerved release themselves in the most terrifying ways.

Perhaps this makes the film fascinating, not by its unveiling, but by its capacity to render men at their most bare and do what they can with that vulnerability. Only when everything is bare can we go for the kill. And as Phil takes the bait from Peter, we see the power play between the two characters shift. Gone are the boundaries, here is only the threshold and the maddening impulse to yield. And in yielding, judgment comes. Love will always be the final verdict after all. 

The final act delivers itself as an aftermath to love’s verdict. Peter wields it as his own weapon to Phil’s demise. That coiled tension present from the beginning has gone, and quiet ease settles into the frame. 

Campion’s steadiness falls still as we revel in the calm. In its finality, we are made to deal with a psalm, “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog,” and a sigh of relief. The ghost has been laid to rest and so will all of them, at last. 

Power of the Dog is streaming on Netflix.

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