Benedict Cumberbatch stars as cruel cowboy Phil Burbank in Jane Campion’s “The Power of the Dog,” an adaptation of the 1967 book of the same name by Thomas Savage, which is set in Montana of 1925.
The movie, which is now streaming on Netflix, is tipped to be an awards favorite, with powerful performances from Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst as Rose, the shy sister-in-law he delights in tormenting, and Kodi Smit-McPhee as her studious son, Peter.
Read on for answers to questions you might have about the dogs, horses and rabbits in the film, and what “the power of the dog” means.
- Are there any dogs in the movie?
Yes, there are three dogs on the Burbank ranch, but they are not central to the plot and nothing happens to any of them. One of them playfully greets the awkward Peter when he first comes to the ranch in his stiff new jeans, but Phil quickly whistles for the dog to come back to him.
2. Is there a symbolic dog?
Yes. At one point, Phil gazes off into the hills near his ranch with a smile and none of his men know what he’s looking at. Later, he asks Peter what he sees in the hills and is astonished when the younger man tells him he sees the shadow of a barking dog. “It looks like a dog with his jaw wide open,” says Peter, who points to the shadow.
3. Are any animals harmed?
Yes. The dogs are fine, but we see two dead cows and two rabbits are killed (details below). When Phil learns that his brother, George (Jesse Plemons) has married the widowed Rose, the volatile rancher takes his anger out on a horse, swatting at is head and chasing it out of the stable. (Scene occurs at 32:45 minutes.)
UPDATE: On February 8, Cumberbatch told the New York Times that while he did learn to ride and to castrate a bull, but he did not actually hit the horse in that scene. It was a visual trick where he’s lashing out at a camera with reins tired to it.
“It’s not just riding the cattle herd or castrating the animals, but I needed to somehow experience all of that in my body. And I did experience all of that in my body. But that moment where I’m whipping the horse with the blanket? I hate to tell The New York Times but obviously it’s me and a camera with reins around it. I can’t watch that moment.“
4. What happens to the rabbits?
The first rabbit is caught in a trap by Peter, who brings it to his mother as a surprise. She cuddles and pets it. But it’s not destined to be a pet. When the kitchen maid Lola (Thomasin McKenzie) goes to Peter’s room to offer the bunny a carrot, she is shocked to see that Peter, a medical student, has killed and dissected it. The softhearted Rose, who is very much like the timid rabbit herself, is upset with Peter and orders him not to kill any more animals – at least not in the house.
When Phil asks Peter to go on a solo trail ride with him, he spots a rabbit, who darts under a pile of logs. As they remove the logs trying to guess when the rabbit will dart out, Phil drops a log, injuring his hand and breaking the rabbit’s leg. Pete picks up the bunny and then (offscreen) snaps its neck to end its suffering.
5. Are there any dead cows?
At about 3:42 minutes into the film, we see a dead cow from a distance during a cattle drive. Phil said it most likely died from anthrax**. At 29:45, Phil skins a dead cow, which is strung up between two trees. At 1:00:01, Phil castrates a bull. At 1:29:45, Peter finds a dead cow in the hills. He puts on gloves and begins to cut it up, as we later learn, to finish the rope Phil started making him.
6. Did Benedict Cumberbatch really castrate a bull?
According to IndieWire, “Cumberbatch went full Method actor for the role, learning how to castrate a bull and to play the banjo, refusing to speak to co-stars like Dunst on set, and choosing not to bathe so he could wear the stink of his character at all times…. the actor (also) got nicotine poisoning more than once due to the amount of cigarettes he was smoking as Phil.”
Director Jane Campion also told IndieWire that Cumberbatch underwent intense ranch training in Montana prior to filming in New Zealand. “He had to do castrating, and learn how to do everything. It’s such a big step for him. It’s a fantastic demonstration of his capacity and his courage.”
PETA tweeted their outrage over the reportedly real castration:
7. Where does the phrase “the power of the dog” come from?
Near the end of the film, Peter opens a Bible and reads Psalm 22:20, which in the King James Version is: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my darling from the power of the dog.” (Other translations may read “power of the dogs.“) The Psalm begins with “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?,” and likens the writer’s enemies to dogs and lions. Per Wikipedia, “Psalm 22 is about a person who is crying out to God to save him from the taunts and torments of his enemies, and (in the last ten verses) thanking God for rescuing him.”
8. Who is the “dog” in the film?
The brutal bully Phil, whose cruelty drives Rose to drink and who regularly insults his brother by calling him “Fatso.” He also calls Peter “Miss Nancy” and “Little Lord Fauntleroy” before taking the lad under his wing so that his mother won’t “make a sissy out of him.” Phil dies, presumably of anthrax, after finishing the rope made from the hide of the dead cow that Peter gave him. With an open cut on his hand, and since he never used gloves, Phil was especially vulnerable.
9. ** What is anthrax? Can people catch it from animals?
From the CDC:
“Anthrax is a serious infectious disease caused by gram-positive, rod-shaped bacteria known as Bacillus anthracis. Anthrax can be found naturally in soil and commonly affects domestic and wild animals around the world. Although it is rare in the United States, people can get sick with anthrax if they come in contact with infected animals or contaminated animal products. Anthrax can cause severe illness in both humans and animals.”
It can also be used as a bioterrorism weapon as in 2001.)
9. Was the movie monitored by Humane Hollywood?
No. The film was shot entirely in Campion’s native New Zealand and does not bear the “no animals were harmed” trademark approval phrase from the American Humane organization.
If you still have questions about what the ending means, read: ‘The Power of the Dog’: Let’s Discuss That Incredible Conclusion
(Updated December 11, 2021)