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Tortured cowboy

Despite a stellar cast and beautiful setting, The Power of the Dog is full of obscurities


Tortured cowboy
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With a 96 percent Rotten Tomatoes ranking, there’s no end of praise for this slow-burning Netflix Western starring Benedict Cumberbatch. The Chicago Sun-Times calls it “beautiful, brooding, dark and unforgiving,” and Polygon describes it as “an immense portrait of psychological torture and toxic masculinity.”

But if you’re like me—the one who struggles to understand modern art unless there are detailed captions—you’ll need Google to get you through The Power of the Dog, rated R for brief male nudity and implied sexual content. Everything from the film’s title to its bitter ending needed some internet research to understand, and by that point, it’s like a joke that needs an explanation. Once you get one, it won’t be funny anymore.

What the two-hour-plus movie does have is a good ensemble, haunting music, and spellbinding scenes of wide expanses that make everyone want to book a flight to New Zealand, where The Power of the Dog was filmed.

Brothers Phil (Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (Jesse Plemons) are wealthy ranchers in 1920s Montana when their crew stops for lunch at an inn run by widow Rose Gordon (Kirsten Dunst) and her teenage son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee). Phil is a hardened man’s man who isn’t afraid to torment those he dislikes.

Peter is Phil’s first target, and he’s mocked mercilessly in front of everyone, which sets in motion a chain of neurotypical human events. Peter flees the room, Rose weeps after seeing her son bullied, and George consoles Rose. In the film’s only fast-moving event, George marries Rose, which hardens Phil even more.

He terrorizes fragile Rose next, calling her a cheap schemer. Both emotionally destroyed by Phil, Rose turns to the bottle and Peter flees to school.

What makes Phil so prickly is never clear. Critics blame everything from toxic masculinity to homophobia, and we eventually find out Phil’s a repressed homosexual pining after a dead mentor. But all these sound like modern-day cop-outs.

Also confusing is the movie’s title (inspired by the Thomas Savage book of the same name), which comes from Psalm 22:20, “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.” Phil is assumed to be the dog. But read carefully, and you’ll notice God is the implied deliverer. Sadly, He is not present in this film. Without spoiling the ending, it’s disappointing that such tormented characters (and director Jane Campion) misinterpret this verse and find solace in its twisted interpretation.

For everything else in the film—including how cowhides play a crucial role in the ending—there’s Google.

Juliana Chan Erikson Juliana is a correspondent and a member of WORLD's investigative unit, the Caleb Team. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Juliana resides in the Washington, D.C. metro area with her husband and 3 children.


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