'The Power of the Dog' Has the Year's Most Surprising and Seductive Ending
How director Jane Campion used sleight of hand to shock and tempt her audience.
This article contains major Power of the Dog spoilers.
Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog, now on Netflix, starts with a voice-over. During the opening titles, Peter, played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, explains: "When my father passed, I wanted nothing more than my mother's happiness, because what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?" Campion doesn't actually introduce Peter until later, but those words hang over the rest of the film like a premonition, even when they seem to contradict the character's actions. Peter's promise only becomes clear in the movie's final moments, when the audience realizes what he has done.
You might be tempted to call the conclusion of The Power of the Dog a twist; upon first watch, it is thrillingly unexpected. Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch)—the cocky cowboy who torments Peter's mom, Rose (Kirsten Dunst), the new wife of his brother, George (Jesse Plemons)—suddenly becomes ill and dies. The cause? Making rope with anthrax-infected rawhide that Peter himself cut from the dead body of a felled cow in the mountains beyond the Burbanks' Montana ranch. Disease enters Phil's blood system through an open wound on his hand, which he refuses to protect with a glove, a sign of the machismo he stakes his life on. Campion never spells out that Peter is the culprit, but the audience knows it from the way he thumbs the rope with covered hands before sliding it under his bed. In the final moment, he peers out of his window to see his mother and George kiss. He has accomplished what he intended: to eradicate Rose's bully and restore her happiness.
Watching The Power of the Dog a second time, it's easy to see where Campion planted seeds for the finale throughout the plot. Still, it's not a film that encourages you to hunt for clues. Its brilliance is in the fact that it's all there, just waiting for you to see it. The Power of the Dog is a film about hiding. Phil hides himself, a repressed gay man, under a cloak of dirt and masculine posturing. Peter hides his plan to undo him. It requires you to look deeper.
The Bible Verse
The film and the Thomas Savage novel on which it's based take their title from a verse in Psalm 22, which Peter reads from a prayer book in the final moments of the narrative: "Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog." Campion has him speak these words aloud, a bookend to the voice-over that opens his journey. He's alone, scanning the pages by himself. Savage's novel makes it abundantly clear who the "dog" is, regardless of biblical intent. It is Phil, who hounds Rose and drives her to drink. "For she was delivered now—," he writes of Rose from the perspective of Peter, "thanks to his father's sacrifice and to the sacrifice he himself had found it possible to make from a knowledge got from his father's big black books. The dog was dead." Cumberbatch's Phil is doglike. He barks at George and nips at Rose's proverbial heels. Like a pup with a beloved bone, he fiercely covets the items that are important to him: the kerchief and saddle belonging to Bronco Henry, his mentor and the man we are led to believe was his lover.
But, as another great novelist of the American West, Annie Proulx, wrote in an afterword for Savage's book, the "dog" can also refer to the canine made from shadows that Bronco Henry trained Phil to see in the mountains, an animal Peter immediately recognizes when Phil quizzes him. Most of Phil's cowboy peers cannot see this creature, which he uses to reaffirm his superiority. But Peter takes him by surprise. His ability to spot what Phil assumed was only available to him disarms Phil and gives Peter the upper hand. That, too, is the dog's power, and in that moment, Peter holds it.
Campion never tries to obscure what Peter is plotting. It's all there. Immediately after Peter witnesses his mother at her lowest, Campion inserts a brief shot of him scanning one of his late father's medical textbooks that he brought to the ranch. The images on the page show body parts covered in a pestilence, the kind of skin ulcers one might get after being exposed to anthrax.
Additionally, the way Peter talks to Phil becomes more pointed in retrospect. He asks if the calves die from wolves. Phil responds that they are occasionally felled by anthrax, otherwise known as black leg. Peter retains that information, just as he retains everything. The conversations between Phil and Peter are sparse in language but dense in ulterior motives. Phil is enacting a sort of mentorship-slash-seduction, doing for Peter what Bronco Henry did for him, imbuing him with both a self-loathing machismo and a romantic affection. Meanwhile, Peter is calculating Phil's weaknesses. When Rose gives away Phil's hides, which he keeps out of pride, to Native Americans who stop by the ranch, Peter sees his opportunity. That's when he gives Phil the infected skin and watches as Phil's blood mingles with the raw, diseased leather.
If the film's version of foreshadowing is Peter's voice-over, the book's is the focus on Phil's hands. In the third paragraph, Savage describes how Phil refused gloves. "He ignored blisters, cuts and splinters and scorned those who wore gloves to protect themselves," Savage writes. "His hands were dry, powerful, lean." Savage later returns to this imagery, remarking on Phil's "clever naked hands" and the "baffling pride he took in going gloveless."
Similarly, Campion's camera focuses on gestures, fingers, and the way her characters handle objects. In Peter's first scene, he thumbs the paper flower he has made. Yes, we see Phil working with his bare hands, his employees asking why they are not covered as he castrates a bull, but we also see them gently fondle Bronco Henry's handkerchief, pulling it from his belt, cradling it, and eventually masturbating with it. Hands also define the final interaction between Phil and Peter in the barn. Phil's are occupied with the rope that will be his downfall, while Peter rolls a cigarette. He raises it to Phil's lips, which graze his fingers. The moment is laden with sensuality, and Peter gazes at Phil intently, but it is not the intent the audience might initially think. Peter's hands are free while Phil's are trapped—those forceful, weathered paws are seeping in death.