Why is Phil so mean in the western movie The Power of The Dog?


Why is Phil so mean in The Power of The Dog?

“The Power of the Dog” by Thomas Savage is a novel that delves into the complicated dynamics of a ranching family in Montana during the early 1900s. At the center of the story is Phil Burbank, a character whose mean behavior is often the source of tension and conflict throughout the novel. We will explore the reasons for Phil’s behavior and attempt to understand the complex factors that contribute to his aggressive and misogynistic tendencies. By analyzing Phil’s past experiences, relationships, and personality traits, we can better understand the character and the themes at the novel’s heart. The film stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons, and Kodi Smit-McPhee is Jane Campion’s Oscars nominated Netflix American western.

Background on Phil Burbank

Phil Burbank is a complex character in “The Power of the Dog.” He is the elder brother of George Burbank, and the two of them inherited the family ranch after their father’s death. Phil is described as a physically imposing rancher with broad shoulders and a muscular build. He is known for his aggressive behavior, misogyny, and general mean-spiritedness. He also suffers from alcoholism and tears up to the tune of his piano as he thinks of his soul mate Bronco Henry. Phil’s upbringing was difficult. His father was a hard man who expected a lot from his sons and showed little affection. Phil’s relationship with his brother George was strained, often at odds. Phil was also sent to military school, which likely contributed to his aggressive behavior and difficulty with emotional expression. As a result of his upbringing and experiences, Phil developed a strong sense of masculinity and becomes a menace to his brother’s new wife while also making a mockery of her son. He believes men should be tough and unemotional, and he has little patience for anything he considers a weakness. He is also highly possessive of the ranch and considers it his responsibility to maintain the family legacy as wealthy ranchers. Phil is not a one-dimensional figure, despite his harsh personality. He is revealed to have vulnerable and emotional moments, notably in his bond with his horse, Runt. While he acts like a mentor to Peter, the fragility in this relationship is apparent. And his taunting of Rose does no job of softening his darling cowboy image. Whether by sword or lasso, Phil swings for the jugular every time.

Reasons for Phil’s mean behavior

Phil’s fury can be attributed to several factors, including his relationship with masculinity, past experiences, and interactions with others. Firstly, Phil’s relationship with masculinity significantly affects his behavior. He subscribes to a toxic form of masculinity that values toughness, aggression, and emotional detachment. This mindset causes him to view any behavior that deviates from his narrow definition of masculinity as weak or inferior. As a result, he has little patience for those who display vulnerability or sensitivity, including women. Secondly, Phil’s past experiences have also contributed to his mean behavior, and his time in military school likely reinforced his belief in the importance of physical strength and aggression. His difficult upbringing, including his strained relationship with his father and brother, has left him with deep emotional scars that he does not know how to process. These experiences may have contributed to his aggressive and emotionally detached personality. Lastly, Phil’s interactions with others, mainly his sister-in-law Rose, also contribute to his mean behavior. Phil is deeply misogynistic and sees Rose as threatening his dominance over the family ranch. He uses verbal and emotional abuse to assert his power over her and to maintain his sense of control.Phil’s mean behavior is a complex interplay of his beliefs about masculinity, past experiences, and interactions with others. These elements have come together to form a figure that is both terribly flawed and incredibly human.

Phil’s vulnerability

Despite his mean behavior, there are moments in the novel where Phil shows vulnerability and tenderness. These moments provide depth to his character and show that he is not just a one-dimensional villain. One example of Phil’s vulnerability is his relationship with his horse, Runt. Phil is shown to have a deep connection with the horse and is devastated when Runt is injured. He spends hours caring for the horse and talking to him, revealing his personality’s softer, more compassionate side. Another moment of vulnerability occurs when Phil is forced to confront his mortality. He suffers a heart attack and is forced to confront the possibility that he may not live to see the ranch continue in his family’s name. This moment of reflection leads him to reassess his priorities and make amends with his brother, George. Furthermore, there are moments where Phil displays tenderness toward Rose, despite his overall abusive behavior towards her. For instance, when Rose is ill, Phil spends the night in her room, caring for and comforting her. He also shows tenderness towards his nieces, allowing them to play on his horse and showing them how to shoot a gun. These moments of vulnerability and tenderness add depth to Phil’s character and make him more complex and human. They demonstrate that despite his flaws, Phil is capable of compassion and love, making his behavior all the more tragic.


Phil Burbank’s mean behavior in “The Power of the Dog” can be attributed to several factors, including his toxic relationship with masculinity, past experiences, and interactions with others. Despite his difficult personality, Phil is not a one-dimensional character, and the novel shows moments of vulnerability and tenderness that add depth to his character. By exploring the complex factors contributing to Phil’s behavior, we can gain a deeper understanding of the character and the themes at the novel’s heart. Ultimately, “The Power of the Dog” explores family dynamics, masculinity, and the destructive power of hate and resentment.