The Power of the Dog is a richly layered film that requires careful observation to interpret its characters’ motivations, particularly those of Phil Burbank.
In the Netflix film, directed by Jane Campion (who won the Oscar for Best Director for the film in 2022) and based on the novel by Thomas Savage, Phil Burbank, portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch, is a complex character who’s dealing with many internal struggles.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of Phil is one of intricacy and depth. Phil is depicted as a hardened, stoic rancher who holds dominion over the Montana ranch with his brother George (Jesse Plemons). He embodies the archetypal masculinity of American West and westerns: tough, independent, and unyielding. However, beneath this hard exterior lies a complex individual grappling with his sexuality in a society that is unaccepting of it.
When Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), George’s stepson, comes into the picture, we see a shift in Phil’s demeanor. Initially, Phil sees Peter as a threat to his dominance, and his response is one of hostility. However, as time progresses, Phil develops a connection with Peter that evolves from a mentor role to a more profound emotional bond, hinting at his repressed homosexual feelings and fueled by alcoholism and tears.
The hides play a symbolic role in this evolving relationship. They serve as a point of connection between Phil and Peter, a medium through which Phil shares his knowledge and extends a form of kinship. The act of teaching Peter to make a rope from the hides provides a channel for Phil to communicate and connect with Peter in a way he finds difficult to express in words or conventional actions.
When Phil chooses to burn the hides, it is a moment laden with multiple meanings. This act can be seen as a significant part of Phil’s character development and narrative arc. The hides that Phil burns are those that he’s been using to teach his brother’s wife’s (Kirsten Dunst) impressionable son Peter, how to make a rope. This bonding activity is part of Phil’s complex relationship with Peter, which is a mix of intimidation, mentorship, and underlying attraction.
On the surface level, Phil might be acting upon Peter’s warning about the hides being a possible source of anthrax, a deadly disease. Phil’s realization that the hides, which he touched without gloves and with an open wound, may be making him ill could be another reason for burning them. Throughout the movie, Phil becomes progressively sicker, which is later revealed to be caused by anthrax. Peter has planted the idea in Phil’s mind that the hides could be a source of disease. So, Phil might have destroyed the hides in an attempt to rid himself of the cause of his illness and, subsequently, his fragility.
On a deeper, more symbolic level, Phil burning the hides can be seen as an attempt to extinguish the emotional connection he has forged with Peter. His internal struggle with his homosexual feelings for Peter and his fear of societal judgment create a turmoil within him that he expresses through this act. Phil’s decision to burn the hides could be an outward manifestation of his desire to destroy any evidence of his affection for Peter, effectively trying to eradicate his ‘unacceptable’ feelings. As someone who has kept his homosexuality concealed due to the societal norms of the time, Phil’s actions could be an outward expression of his inner turmoil. Phil has used the hides and the rope-making as a way to connect with Peter, and burning the hides might symbolize a desire to sever this connection due to his inability to fully understand or accept his feelings.
Lastly, Phil’s act could be interpreted as a form of self-punishment. Phil, being unable to reconcile his feelings for Peter with his societal role and self-image, might see the destruction of the hides as a symbolic act of purging his ‘sins’.
It’s important to note that the film, much like the book it’s based on, is deliberately ambiguous and relies heavily on subtext, so interpretations of character motivations can vary among viewers. Still, The Power of the Dog presents us with characters whose motivations and actions are multi-layered, making it a complex narrative that invites multiple interpretations. Therefore, Phil’s act of burning the hides can be seen as a combination of practical considerations, internal emotional struggle, and symbolic self-destruction.