THE POWERS OF THE POWER OF THE DOG
The images of myth must be the daemonic guardians, ubiquitous but unnoticed, presiding over the growth of the child’s mind and interpreting to the mature man his life and struggles.
Nietzsche: The Birth of Tragedy
Many spoilers ahead
I: The cowboy in the doorway.
Recently, I watched Power of the Dog for the second time. Absolutely necessary due to the tragic structure of the film. You don’t understand what’s really happening until the last twenty minutes. That’s when it all comes together — just like the vision of Oedipus with blood streaming from his eyes. So, what do you do? You reexamine from the beginning with knowledge of the ending. Of course, the original Athenian audience didn’t have to do this with Oedipus. They knew the story.
With The Power of the Dog, we don’t know the story, but we do know the genre. It’s a western. Although it was shot in New Zealand, it takes place in Montana, set in the period where “civilization” is in the process of displacing “the code of the west”. The year is 1925. Tin Lizzies were honking horses off the road; stone downtowns were being erected on the prairie, complete with railroad stations and libraries. We are on the cusp of modernity.
Like so many westerns, Power is about the end of the Western. The last cowboy — like John Wayne in The Searchers, framed in the doorway, unable to enter, unable to come back to a civilized world where he doesn’t belong, fated to wander like a ghost between worlds.
But, unlike Ethan, Phil Burbank winds up dead — murdered by an effeminate boy who uses medical science he learned from a university textbook to kill him — like a dumb cow.
And thereby hangs the tale.
Like many other directors of post-Searcher movies, even The Godfather, Campion deliberately uses the doorway framing device, especially at the beginning and end of the film — a homage to John Ford, but, more important an indication of the division between indoor and outdoor, of the home and the range.
Phil, (brilliantly acted by Benedict Cumberbach) — a man’s man, a cowboy’s cowboy, the last iteration of John Wayne. We see him at first surrounded by his energized coterie of masculine acolytes, whoopin’ it up among the cattle.
Indoors — Peter (also brilliantly acted by Kodi Smit-Mc Phee), a woman’s man, (or rather, a woman’s boy) — fashioning paper flowers for his mother to memorialize his dead (by suicide) father.
Antagonist/protagonist/ conflict. From the very beginning — the protector of the mother against the destroyer of the mother.
For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?
In the indoor world, Phil is a barbaric pillager, from the time he ignites one of Peter’s paper roses, to his interruption of the piano music (Roll out the Barrel), to his brutal shredding of the human Rose (Kirsten Dunst — brilliant) when she attempts to play the piano. This ruthless humiliation snaps the woman. She takes up the bottle, much as Peter’s father once did — alcoholism that led to his suicide at the end of a rope.
Phil cannot function in the civilized “indoor” world. He brings the stink and sweat of the cattle drive inside, where he refuses to change his clothes or bathe. Outdoors, he is the alpha man. whose anger is power and whose power is anger. Phil is the breaker of horses and the maker of steer. The sequence where he takes his fury out on a horse (a mare) and the sequence where, barehanded, he cuts into the scrotum of a bull are unforgettable.
Anger — μῆνιν menin — the first word of the Iliad. The first word in Western Literature. What do we do with a man’s rage? Where does it come from? How can it be tamed? Settled? Extinguished? Whether Achilles or Creon or Lear — this is a fundamental thread from the beginning, and it is, perhaps, the fundamental problem of civilization.
And what do we do with the women who are like men? Clytemnestra? Antigone?, Regan and Goneril? And what do we do with men who are like women? Is there a toxic femininity that ravages toxic masculinity?
II: Pentheus and Dionysus.
In the character of Phil, we discover the roots of the anger: a powerful self-loathing engendered by another man who made him into a woman when he was a boy Peter’s age. And Phil succumbed to forbidden love of that man. And that man died. And Phil became a dog — or, rather, could see the shadow of the dog on the side of the hill. And that dog hounded him remorselessly, hounded and separated him from his brother George and from the marriage of George and Rose, separated him from Yale College, drove him out of every interior space and into a deep thicket where he could cherish the forbidden images of men, hounded him to create a shrine where a fetishized phallic saddle might be worshipped and fondled, hounded him to a deep pool where he could caress his own genitalia and climax like Bronco once did.
At crucial moments in the film, Peter discovers, one by one, the strands of Phil’s masculinity, of his anger. He enters the thicket and peers into the magazines; he silently watches at the edge of the pool. He decodes the saddle. He knows Phil because, in a way, he is Phil.
And Peter begins his seduction of Phil.
This requires transitioning into the outdoors, becoming Phil’s acolyte — learning how to ride a horse, leaving the protective mother, and setting out into the wilderness. Wearing, however awkwardly, the big white cowboy hat. He straddles Bronco’s saddle. He kills the rabbit.
Peter’s journey into manhood, is both a ruse and a lure. But perhaps there is an element of searching for the father he lost at the end of a rope.
And on his final journey — alone — his decisive initiation into manhood, Peter discovers the corpse of a cow, dead of anthrax.
The anthrax will provide the Liebestod — the love-death that climaxes the film and supplies the final power of the dog.
Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.
How are we supposed to understand this verse? Perhaps in more than one way. Let’s closely examine the final episodes. (Thanks to Netflix, I can watch the movie for a third time.)
III: The Turning
The decisive pivot in the power dynamic between the antagonists stands almost precisely at the center of the film.
Phil has triumphed over Rose. He stares down at her as she drinks from her secret flask in the garbage filled alley next to the big house. He cynically whistles the Strauss’ Radedsky March — the outdoor man’s triumph over the indoor darling woman. Phil holds the full power of the dog.
The next sequence at the stream shows Phil isolating himself from his naked cowboy fellowship, all of them cavorting like masculine naiads. Alone, kneeling, he pulls from his groin the sacred veil — BH’s veil. He fondles it, caresses it against his face. He climaxes.
But with that ejaculation, Phil begins to lose his power. Simultaneously, Peter crawls through a deep thicket and, in Phil’s secret place, opens the trunk to gaze upon Bronco Henry’s stash of male nudes. The photographs are reminiscent of ancient Greek statues, reminiscent of the images of Achilles and Patroclus, the warriors Phil would have studied as a classicist at Yale, reminiscent of a time when strong older men unashamedly loved younger men.
Peter hears a splash, and comes upon the naked Phil, bathing with the veil around his neck. Phil chases the “little bitch” away — but at that moment, the hunted becomes the hunter. The bitch begins to acquire the power of the dog.
From now on, Peter’s quiet anger will stalk and seduce Phil.
The “little faggot”, the “little Nancy” saunters past the mocking whistles of Phil’s retinue. But there is a crucial turning point. Peter reverses his walk and strides back through the gauntlet, unafraid of the taunts and inspiring his onetime nemesis. Little Lord Fauntleroy becomes Pete and Mr Burbank becomes Phil
Pete, we sort of got off on the wrong foot.
Did we sir?
No forget the Sir stuff. That can happen to people, you know, people who get to be good friends.
–- and the murder weapon — the plaited rope — is seen in Phil’s hands for the first time. Phil begins to mentor Pete just as Bronco mentored Phil.
I’m gonna give you this rope and teach you how to use it.
Rose watches helplessly as Peter enters Phil’s barn-cave. The door to his mother slams shut. Framed by another opening, the doorway that looks out onto the hillside dog, Peter mounts Bronco’s saddle.
Don’t let your mom make a sissy out of you.
Peter “soaks up” Bronco’s “know how” “just by sitting there.” Pete is metamorphizing into the boy Bronco once brought into manhood. Phil invites Pete on a journey into the hills to “find those trails and follow them to the end.” In answer to the boy’s question about wolves (dogs), Phil uses the word “anthrax” for the first time.
And then, the crucial connection.
“He taught me to use my eyes in ways that other people can’t. Take that hill over there . . .When Bronco looked at it what do you suppose he saw?”
“A barking dog.”
“The hell, you just saw that now?”
“No, when I first came here. . . “
Bronco and Phil and Pete merge. Each has seen the power of the dog, whatever it is — masculinity, homosexuality, the hidden power of secrecy, the relief from loneliness in a world where gay love cannot speak its name. Or is it vehement power? The power to release canine anger, to castrate and kill — the power of the wolf?
The intimate encounter with Phil is balanced by an intimate scene with Rose. Some have speculated that the two share a secret — that she and Peter killed his father. The cryptic conversation about stars, the disturbing shiver of the comb — perhaps Peter’s musical instrument like the piano and the banjo.
Mother, you don’t have to do this.
I’ll see you don’t have to do it.
The “this” he tells his mother she doesn’t have to do is unspoken. Is it the necessary removal of the obstacle?
Peter then goes to his anatomy book and then to the circular corral where Phil releases him and his horse into the wild. Peter rides off, alone, into his initiation journey. He finds a dead calf, black legged, from anthrax. He dons his gloves and, with the detachment of a surgeon, cuts a strip of flesh.
Gloves are a motif in this part of the movie. In the next sequence, Phil and Peter ride off to the far field “kinda paired up” while a hysterical Rose tries helplessly to prevent them. Partners in manhood, (at least superficially) they plant a post and catch Peter Cottontail. (Earlier, a bunny had provided a tactile connection between mother and son.) The combination of gentleness and ruthlessness with which Peter first strokes, then snaps the neck, in a way, portends his final treatment of Phil.
It’s all right . . . (snap)
And then, Phil’s blood on the waving wheat dripping from his ungloved hand. In the conversation that follows, Bronco’s saying about a man being made “by patience and the odds against him” is paired with Peter’s dead father’s saying about removing obstacles. Each in his own way is saying the same thing. What is the obstacle? Phil sees it as the alcoholic “half-shot all summer” Rose. Peter doesn’t. He tells Phil that he cut down the rope that killed his father.
He used to worry that I was too strong.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Rose takes the hides out of Phil.
Phil doesn’t want anyone else to have’em.
Rose asserts her position as the spouse of the owner of the ranch against Phil’s primitive right to burn them. The Indian boy gives her a pair of “so soft, so deliciously soft” gloves. Then she collapses in a stupor and George brings her to her room.
Fury, μῆνιν, once again pulsates in the barn the way it did when, earlier, Phil assaulted the mare after George told him he had married Rose. Now, he rages against his brother and his brother’s darling over hides that belong to him the way Achilles claim of Briseis set off the Iliadic anger. Peter listens from just outside — then, gloved, returns to the barn, offering his own rawhide “to finish the rope”.
IV: The Love Death
The homoerotic connection between Phil and Peter becomes more palpable as the boy begins to assert his own power of the dog. The camera pans the shadowy hills and then Peter brings in a bucket containing the contaminated strands. Phil dips his hands in the water, conjoining with the anthrax and with his death. Phil weaves the strands into the rope while Peter intently looks on. The camera brings them closer and closer to each other in sensuous two-shots.
The rope is both phallus and umbilical cord. It is the origin and instrument of death, woven by fate, like the red carpet in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, — the necessary connective tissue — between the two antagonists, between present and past, between the dumb animal and the ruthless sacrificial act. Phil is Clytemnestra, silently, patiently, watching the fiery king remove his boots and step onto the carpet.
Peter crosses to the totemic saddle and strokes it
How old were you when you met Bronco Henry?
About the age you are now.
Was he your best friend?
Yeah, he was, but more than that, once he saved my life. . .
Bronco kept me alive by lying body in the bedroll.
Peter lights the cigarette and places in in Phil’s lips
The exchange of the lit cigarette between the two is as erotically charged as the invitation to kiss between Garbo and Gilbert in Flesh and the Devil (perhaps another homage by Director Campion?)
The union is complete: Bronco, Phil, and Peter are one and the same. Love and death are one. Three men, three queer “darlings”. But one is a ruthless killer.
Pete seduces and murders his nemesis — the way the lissome Dionysus seduced and sacrificed Pentheus. We are not dealing with Wagnerian romance here. but Euripidean tragedy. Like that playwright, Campion has interrogated and subverted a melodramatic genre, the Western — turning it upside-down and inside-out.
Phil Burbank’s defunct. Mister Death’s a blue-eyed boy.
As the horses stir, the anthrax courses through the cowboy’s veins.
V: The Cowboy in the Coffin
Dressed in a city suit, and wearing a city hat, a stricken Phil picks up the death rope and, in his moment of anagnorisis, or perhaps a moment of longing, asks Where’s the boy? Then we and Peter see the car framed in the window, driven by George, bringing Phil to his death.
Dressed in a suit, hand still bandaged, Phil is laid in his coffin. His eyes are half-open as the lid comes down.
White roses at the funeral. Gold rings in Rose’s hand.
Those last convulsions…
Terrible, truly frightful.
You know what I’m thinking?
Peter, alone against the landscape with a barking dog. Peter, alone in his room with a book — The Book of Common Prayer — The Order for the Burial of the Dead.
From the window, Peter looks down on George and Rose embracing. And his gloved hands caress the rope. He conceals it under his bed, his secret — like Phil Burbank’s, and Bronco Henry’s nude photographs –
He picks up the Prayer Book and reads aloud.
Deliver my soul from the sword, my darling from the power of the dog.