Power of the Dog Plot Synopsis
The Power Of The Dog is a slow, quiet, thought provoking movie. It’s certainly not for everyone, and you absolutely need to go into this with no distractions.
The movie opens off the back of a big funeral. We don’t actually see this take place but the death of Bronco Henry weighs heavily over our characters. Like a solitary black cloud across the beautiful New Zealand skyline, the emotions are purple, bruised and ready to burst at any moment.
At the center of this bubbling pot of emotion is charismatic rancher Phil Burbank. He’s angry and wound tighter than a screw. He invokes fear and wonder in all those around him. When his brother George brings home a new wife in Rose and her “half-wit” son Peter, Phil lashes out at the changes in his life.
What happened to Peter in the past? And is he a psychopath?
After getting bullied and humiliated by Phil across the movie’s run-time, Peter strikes an unlikely bond with the rancher. While together, Phil agrees to make a lasso from rawhide as a gift.
Just prior to this conversation, Peter actually stumbled upon a whole stash of nude magazines with Bronco Henry written on the front. We’ll circle back to that in a bit, but it’s important because Phil is at his most vulnerable when Peter sees him take a bath nearby to where these magazines are hidden.
As the pair talk together in the barn later in the movie, Peter clearly sees a lot of his father in Phil. The man was cruel and unlike Phil (who is clearly a chain-smoking addict) his father was an alcoholic. Peter was the one who found his father hanging from the rafters. He cut him down and had the awful ordeal of seeing his father dead. Peter is perceived to be a timid, shy boy from the beginning but after learning this, it’s clear that he’s anything but.
While out together in the fields, Phil watches as Peter snaps the neck of a rabbit without even flinching. The action is so nonchalant that Phil actually finds himself intimidated – and maybe a little impressed – by Peter’s actions.
It could be argued that Peter is somewhat of a psychopath here. He’s very good at manipulating people’s emotions and he manages to play Phil at his own game, using his weakness surrounding Bronco Henry to outsmart him.
What causes Rose to start drink?
Peter blames Phil for his mother’s health taking a dive, claiming that Phil is the reason his mother has started to drink. Much like Peter, Rose has taken a fair brunt of psychological abuse across the movie. When she’s playing the piano and practicing for the governor, Phil taunts her by playing the banjo in unison with her. He even completely upstages her too, playing expertly from the upstairs balcony and ending it with a pretty violent strum.
When the big day arrives, Rose is so nervous and torn that she can’t play. But that doesn’t stop Phil from showing up at the eleventh hour and pointing out that she’s been practicing for days. Embarrassed in front of these esteemed guests, Phil sarcastically retorts that it’s a “shame” there’s no dancing. This leads Rose down the slippery slope of addiction.
Were Bronco Henry and Phil in love?
This is the biggest point of contention across the movie, and a surprisingly tender one too. As mentioned earlier, Phil has a soft spot for Bronco Henry. The words “a friend” are laid out above his saddle, which has a special place in the barn away from everyone else. We see Phil meticulously clean the saddle and doing so in a loving way.
Phil is also unwilling to wash-up too, a potential hint that he doesn’t want to “wash away” the touch of Bronco Henry. The nude magazines with Bronco’s name written on the front depict numerous male models inside. This, coupled with the cloth Phil holds dear, seem to hint at a secret relationship between the pair.
The cloth itself also holds the initials “B.H.” and if that wasn’t enough, Phil clearly masterbates with the cloth too, after brushing it gently across his body.
It’s fair to say that the pair were involved in a relationship together, with the secret area a potential place for them both to be together. It’s also worth pointing out that while the cowhands call Peter a faggot, the camera swiftly cuts to Phil’s face. He refuses to engage in this same name-calling, another potential hint.
Was Phil’s death foreshadowed?
Yes. During the midway point of the movie Phil and Peter look upon the hill in the distance and comment on what they see. Peter mentions he sees the shadows in the form of a dog with its jaws open. Now, black dogs have historically been connected to death, especially in European folklore. They’re also the guardians of the underworld too, keeping a close eye on those who have passed. And of course, this movie constantly refers back to Bronco Henry’s death.
Furthermore, Rose also listens as the housemaid discusses the nature of death. She speaks of a deceased that continued to grow hair even after her death, with golden locks “taking up all the room” save for some grey at the end. This makes the end scene, with Phil being shaved and free from his beard, that much more significant too. Both of these instances hint that Phil was always going to be killed.
How does Phil die? And does Peter kill Phil?
By the end of the film we learn that Phil died from anthrax. The root cause of this is not immediately clear – but there are clues dotted along the way. Earlier in the movie we learn of an anthrax outbreak that has killed several of the ranch’s cattle.
After Rose drunkenly gives away all of Phil’s rawhide, Peter senses an opportunity and strikes. He cuts away some of his own rawhide, being sure to wear gloves while doing so. This confirms that he knew the hides were infected.
When Phil learns of the rawhide being sold, Peter suggests he use his own tainted hides. After Phil cut his hands moving logs earlier on, Phil drops the infected rawhide into water; the camera shows his hands submerged in the water, complete with his open wound. This singular action starts the slippery slope toward Phil passing away.
His biggest downfall here though is the affection he shows toward Peter. Phil clearly sees a lot of Bronco Henry in Phil. He too is the only one who can see beyond the simple “it’s a hill” observation in the distance, which starts off the pair’s closer bond, with Phil commenting numerous times how Peter reminds him of Henry.
In the movie’s closing scenes, we see Peter pick up the finished braided rope with gloves on and push it gently under Phil’s bed. As he stands up, a thin smile crosses his lips. The revenge has been carried out with surgical, bone-chilling precision. Peter killed Phil, and this seems to have been his plan all along.
Read More: The Power of the Dog Movie Review
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