[Editor’s Note: This article contains spoilers for The Power of the Dog.]
“When my father passed, I wanted nothing more than my mother’s happiness. For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?”
These are the opening lines of The Power of the Dog, spoken by Peter Gordon (Kodi Smit-McPhee), son of Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst), who has been widowed these last four years before the story begins in Montana in 1925. She marries George Burbank (Jesse Plemons), a wealthy rancher, but immediately draws the ire of George’s cruel brother Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch). Phil’s cruelty, and how his loneliness reflects her own, drives Rose to drink and into the depths of depression.
One day while exploring, Peter, who’s studying to become a doctor, discovers not only male erotica owned by Bronco Henry (Phil’s mentor and likely secret lover), but also sees Phil having a private moment in a secluded glade. Phil, feeling exposed, first lashes out at Peter, but then tries to reconcile himself to the young man by offering to make him a rope out of rawhide as a peace offering. Phil believes that maybe he can be the kind of companion to Peter that Bronco was to Phil, and Peter lets Phil believe this.
Peter then goes out riding one day and finds a cow that has died from anthrax. He cuts strips of rawhide from the animal and brings them back, being careful to wear gloves while he handles the diseased carcass. Later, after Rose has sold the hides that Phil had planned for his own use, Peter sees his opportunity to offer the rawhide to Phil, who has an open cut on his hand from when the two were playing a game moving logs to scare a rabbit into running. With his injured hand, Phil soaks the diseased rawhide, thus getting infected with anthrax. He dies not long after, although he manages to complete the rope he made for Peter. Peter receives the rope, hides it under his bed, and then looks out the window to see that his mother, now recovering from her depression, is now happy with George. Peter smiles knowing that he has “saved” his mother.
RELATED: ‘The Power of the Dog’ Trailer Stars Benedict Cumberbatch in Gorgeous Western
In this final scene, we also get the bible verse that gives the film its title, Psalm 22:30: “Deliver my soul from the sword, my darling from the power of the dog.” For Peter, Phil is that dog. He is the tormenter of his mother, and as long as Phil lives, he will drive Rose to drink and self-destruction. Peter, who has the cold, clinical mind of a doctor (hence the scene earlier in the film where he’s dissecting the adorable rabbit), knew how to manipulate Phil into his own demise.
What makes this ending so brilliant is how it manages to intersect the desires, cruelties, and kindnesses of the lead characters. If Phil were a supporting character and Peter were the protagonist, it would be a simple matter of “defeating the bad guy.” However, because Campion and Cumberbatch do so much to put us into Phil’s mindset and emotions, he’s more of a tragic figure. Yes, he’s cruel and callous, but it all stems from deep loneliness and mourning the loss of Bronco Henry. Phil sees a world where true love has been denied to him and chooses to lash out at anyone who may find such happiness. Rose in particular becomes the target of Phil’s ire because her loneliness—the feeling that she can’t be the woman that George wants her to be—mirrors his own, and so the two feel a deep contempt for each other but while Rose’s pain turns inwards with her drinking, Phil’s contempt manifests outwards with his cruelty.
The longing and desire for companionship becomes Phil’s undoing as he makes himself emotionally vulnerable to Peter in hopes of recreating the relationship Phil had with Bronco Henry with Phil now in the Bronco role. Peter, who had found Bronco’s erotica, knew that was Phil’s goal and took advantage of it. This creates a fascinating exchange between the characters where Phil is trying to show kindness towards Peter (whom he had previously treated cruelly) and Peter is cruelly manipulating Phil’s feelings in order to do a kindness to protect Rose from Phil’s continued cruelty.
And yet despite Phil’s cruelty, we can’t help but also pity him. He exposed his heart (hence the symbolism of the open wound) and in return received poison. It’s a powerful metaphor for the way we long for an emotional connection that can obliterate us. Peter’s love was for his mother, and for him, to be a man meant defeating her mother’s tormentor. But in another clever move, Campion stays true to Peter’s feminine masculinity. He would never try to win a shootout with Phil or defeat him in any kind of test of physical strength. Instead, Peter uses Phil’s emotions against him, betraying a sad, lonely, angry man because that’s what protecting his mother demanded. It is a kindness to Rose, but for Phil, it is, as Shakespeare said, “the most unkindest cut of all.”