The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

One mark of a great film is the way that it can humanize a hateful figure without ever excusing his abuses. This movingly traces a trajectory of homophobia fueling the adoption of a performative hyper-masculinity that inevitably harms women. Phil is initially defined primarily by his callousness and macho posturing - one of his first scenes sees him literally burning a delicately handmade paper flower before publicly roasting the sensitive boy who made it. But the film gradually develops each of these abuses as being a symptom of his self-protective shell likely taught to him by his former mentor/implied lover who passed away. The film's shapeshifting structure initially leaves much of the stakes intriguingly ambiguous. First, it's a family drama where a pair of brothers' business partnership in the rugged West is threatened when George falls in love with Rose. Then, the melancholy sweetness of the love story (the teaching how to dance scene!!) morphs into a sensitive portrait of the lower class Rose trying to find herself in this wealthy ranch life before descending into alcoholism as a result of Phil's outwardly hostile inhospitality. By this point, George is almost entirely removed from the story and Rose's son Peter comes to prominence and the film's real narrative interest is finally revealed and recontextualizes all the came before it.

The developing attraction between Phil and Peter is emotionally and thematically multi-faceted. Phil's sudden mentorship of Peter in teaching him how to be a cowboy reads as both a guarded seduction as well as an initiation into the same sort of damaging masculinity that Phil has used as a shield for years. Peter's tentative curiosity is informed by very real chance that Phil will become violent if Peter becomes explicitly sexual toward him. We already saw Phil chase down Peter after he discovers Peter was watching him swim naked. Rose's protectiveness that shades this mentorship is also grounded in her first hand experience of the sort of masculinity Phil embodies that Peter has been able to avoid in his boyish innocence. So, the central seduction functions as both a battle for Peter's soul in the type of man he should strive to be as well as a genuinely risky emotional exploration that could very well end in violence. The film culminates in the beautifully sensual rope braiding scene built around an extreme close up slow track that emphasizes the texture of a tightening rope and alternating close ups between seductive stares sharing a cigarette. There's an overwhelming feeling of an equal potential for a violent or sexual explosion for the entirety of the scene - it's one of the most effective and complex climaxes I can recall. The film's final reveal that it's Peter who was the actual violent threat could read as a cheap plot twist. But because the entire film is functioning on this larger symbolic level, Peter's violence reads as a reassertion of a less harmful, less repressed gay masculinity that protects his mother from men like Phil. After all, the titular dog is symbolic on many levels: the shared gift for unusual sight between Phil and Peter in seeing the dog carved out in the mountainside, Phil's ruthless cruelty being animalistic, but also in the gentle way that Peter plays with a dog. A straightforward gentleness and openness that Phil once mocked from atop his horse.