Oscar nominee 2022: The Power of the Dog (2021)

(Netflix streaming) 

Engage with culture without disengaging your faith.

Jane Campion won an Oscar for best achievement in directing (and 11 other nominations) and the film won in the ‘best film’ category at the BAFTA Awards. More recognitions here.

Genre: Noir Western
Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Kodi Smit-McPhee
Rating: M
Director: Jane Campion
Screenwriter: Jane Campion (based on Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel of the same name)

The Power of the Dog is a psychological drama film set in 1925 Montana (but filmed mostly in New Zealand).
The film covers themes such as love, grief, resentment, loss, disappointment, jealousy, masculinity, addictions, and sexuality.
Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch) is Yale educated – and no doubt his wealthy high-society parents had anticipated he’d be more than a cowboy. The film depicts Phil (aged 40) as the hardened, independent, tough cowboy/rancher stereotype. He is a loner. He is a bully to others in order to secure being seen as the boss man. Phil and his younger brother George (aged 38) are bachelors who still share their childhood bedroom in the old ranch house that has seen better days. Phil regards his kindly younger laconic brother with disrespect, calling him ‘fatso’. George unexpectedly marries a widow Rose (whose husband had committed suicide), who he met when she was working in a local eating house. (In real life the actors are partners). Rose has a teenage son (Peter) hoping to be a doctor/surgeon. In the rugged country setting, Peter is considered effeminate and weak and mocked by one and all. Phil taunts mother and son. Surprisingly, Phil opens himself to a mentoring relationship with Peter, and the two strike up an unlikely bond. The film is a slow burn, a broody story with menace at hand – and it turns out the menace and malice does not only come from Phil, but happens to him, when he makes himself vulnerable to the possibility of love. It is an absolutely riveting story.

General questions for discussion
Some general questions might provide enough framework for you to discuss the movie:
* What stood out as the main points/highlights in the documentary?
* What themes are explored?
* What challenged you? What questions did it raise for you?
* What resonated with your own experience?
* Who have been significant influencers for you, and in what way?
* Are there biblical or theological themes or characters that come to mind?

Everything is broken
The viewer observes that all the characters are broken. The reasons are largely hidden but have consequences. Phil, Yale educated, has developed a tough character predisposed to bullying, yet longing for connection. He’s charismatic, but threatening and scary. George, the younger brother who endures his brother’s constant taunts. Rose, the young widow, marries George – a loving kind man in a wealthy family, yet is full of insecurities and resorts to alcohol. Peter, a young man constantly mocked by others, with grand ambitions and a quiet determination to succeed.
Phil’s behaviour is toxic and verging on sadistic in tone. Deriding and demeaning others. We probably all know about people like Phil who enjoy the game of making people frustrated, disorientated. They create chaos on purpose because they find it entertaining to watch those around them react. The abuse may not leave physical bruises or broken bones, but there is surely brokenness inflicted on those around Phil. Sometimes people assume psychological abusers are just wounded people who don’t know any better – “wounded people, wound people.” Psychological abuse, like we see with Phil, is rooted in power and control of those around them. People who use psychological abuse get away with it due to fear about the consequences of challenging the destructive behaviour (others remain silent, or laugh along to avoid the spotlight being directed on them).
But, we also probably know people like Phil whose behaviour may be the result of circumstances in life, hidden from view, where that pain and brokenness sit under the surface, where outer strength is the counterpoint for one’s own inner fragility, and not dealt with in a way where the person can gain a sense of health and wholeness.
We all know people like Rose, fighting her own shame and insecurities, and using alcohol for consolation and to hold the demons at bay for a time…
We all know people like George, targetted for torment by his older dominating brother, living with loneliness, and trying ‘reasonability’ as a pathway to find some kind of peace and solace …
We all know people like Peter, the quiet ones, who surprise us by how calculating and manipulating they can be … (or do we?)
=> Discuss the characters as you observed them, and their interactions.
(Note: as this is a general discussion resource, a word of caution to not delve deeply into shared personal reflections. If a person senses they have permission to share deep personal experiences it’s wise to find a way to support them to seek counsel outside of the discussion).

Deconstructing male stereotypes
Some viewers may be starry eyed remembering cowboy movies of another era, where the John Wayne “lone cowboy” archetype was central to the story, overcoming the odds with determination and fortitude. Others (like me) may be less enchanted by ‘westerns’. But this is a very different kind of story. Phil seems to epitomise the archetype of the macho cowboy (who castrates bulls, with no gloves – he’s a ‘man’s man’), but scratch below the surface and there are secrets galore. Why does he take on this persona of a hard working, rugged cowboy when he has an education from Yale? Why take on the ‘tough guy’ bullying approach to being the boss? Who was Bronco Henry and what influence did he have on Phil as mentor, and lover? Phil’s behaviour seems to be a protection against the possibility of being ‘found out’. He must repress his sexuality, and overcompensate with ‘traditional masculinity’.
=> Why do you think Jane Campion selected this story for a contemporary audience? What is she addressing in traditional masculinity?

The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion said, “The power of the dog is all those urges, all those deep, uncontrollable urges that can come and destroy us, you know?”
Psalm 22: “7 All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head; 13 They gaped upon me with their mouths, as a ravening and a roaring lion; 16 For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet; 20 Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.
The implication seems to be that Phil is the dog and that the rest of the characters are saved from his power by his death. The verses that precede it are also important (vv 6-7) for they speak about the power wielded to denigrate and belittle people, until they see themselves of lesser value: “But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people. All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head…”.
That is the dog’s “power”.
=> In the last year, we have seen women raise the issue of sexual abuse and harrassment in the public arena. It’s been supported by men and women alike, calling for change. How does this insight from Psalms provided a fresh lens to view power, manipulation and abuse? Discuss.

Did you see the end coming? (trying not to do spoilers here)
Quoting Ps 22: 12-13: “Many bulls have compassed me: strong bulls of Bashan have beset me round. They gaped upon me with their mouths, as a ravening and a roaring lion.” This is enacted when, at Phil’s instigation, the cowhands circle around Peter. He’s also subject to wolf-whistles and jeering name calling (‘faggot’) from the cowhands when he’s walking along in a huge cowboy hat which was meant to denigrate him because he appears effeminate to these hardy cowboys – yet somehow made Peter more determined. Peter discovers Phil’s secret world, and Phil becomes a gentler, kinder person. Was he grooming Peter? Or was this his true self? Peter himself gives nothing away… but quietly sets a plan in motion that leads to Phil’s demise.
Was it revenge? Or perhaps Peter was ‘saving’ Phil from living a life torn between the bold rugged macho cowboy image he projected, and the gentle caring mentor that was closer to his true self. Who knows?
=> How quick we are to judge complex characters when we only know part of their story. How quick others are to judge us when they only know part of our story, and motivations. How quick we are to judge ourselves when we might simply need to be doing more work to find a healthy, happy life. Discuss.

(c) Movie Discussion Resource prepared by Sandy Boyce, April 2022. Permission to download and use, but please acknowledge author and source.

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