Who really holds the “power” in The Power of the Dog? The film’s ending reveals it isn’t who we’d think. Jane Campion’s movie – based on Thomas Savage’s semi-autobiographical 1967 novel – challenges the classic “cowboy myth,” drawing out a latent homoeroticism in the Western Genre.
Who really holds the “power” in The Power of the Dog? The movie’s ending reveals it isn’t who we’d think. For most of the story, savagely cruel rancher Phil is the most dominant character, terrorizing his new sister-in-law Rose and her sensitive son Peter. But the ending tells us that it’s Peter who’s actually been in control, as he’s orchestrated a meticulous plan to kill Phil using anthrax-infected hides. Jane Campion’s movie, based on Thomas Savage’s semi-autobiographical 1967 novel, challenges the classic “cowboy myth,” drawing out a latent homoeroticism in the Western Genre. And The Power of the Dog is ultimately a story about how toxic masculinity is a corrosive force that destroys people from the inside—because men like Phil who work so hard to perform an inauthentic idea of a “real man” end up becoming their own greatest victims. Caught up in this act, Phil’s fatal flaw is his inability to really see himself, or Peter, clearly. And so the movie’s title, The Power of the Dog, refers to those dark, secret selves we fear, and what happens when they surface. Here’s our take on the movie’s twist ending and the true meaning of the title.
So… What Happened?
At the end of the movie, Phil is dead, and his likely cause of death? Anthrax. Anthrax is a bacterial disease that usually comes from infected animals or animal products, but Phil was always careful never to expose himself.
George: “But he never handled diseased animals.” - The Power of the Dog
Earlier in the movie, Phil mentions that his cattle sometimes die from anthrax. And after Peter learns to ride, we see him go on a solo excursion where he comes across a dead cow, puts on gloves, and cuts into its flesh. On first viewing, we might assume this is simply a dissection exercise, practice for his goal of being a surgeon (like with the earlier rabbit). But after Phil finds out that Rose gave away the ranch’s hides, Peter volunteers his diseased hides for the rope Phil is making for him. The circling shot as he decides to make the offer is significant because it underlines the gravity of the decision Peter is making in this moment (to kill Phil). Cinematographer Ari Wegner explains, “they start off the film polar opposites, and over the course of the film, you begin to realize they’re not dissimilar at all. I really like that spinning idea that they’re almost replacing each other gradually.” While Phil and Peter were out together, Phil cut his hand, making him all the more susceptible to contracting the disease from the hides, and in the barn scene where Phil works on the rope, the camera highlights the open wound on his hand. The next time we see Phil, he’s extremely sick in bed. As the brothers prepare to leave for the doctor, Phil picks up the rope and the camera again draws our attention to his wounded hand. After Phil dies, Peter reads the Power of the Dog passage from Psalm 22 of the Book of Common Prayer, wears gloves when handling the rawhide rope Phil gave him, and smiles to see that—now that Phil is gone—his mom is now sober and her marital happiness seemingly restored.
The reason this twist hits so hard is that, throughout the film, Phil is the one who embodies a sense of menace, while we might have feared what he would do to Peter. But there are also major clues that in fact, Peter is the stronger and more ruthless character—like when he and Phil are discussing what makes a man.
Peter: “My father said… obstacles. And you had to try and remove them.” - The Power of the Dog
The movie also opens with his voiceover clearly articulating his mission in life.
Peter: “I wanted nothing more than my mother’s happiness.” - The Power of the Dog
Phil is the clear obstacle to Rose’s happiness, first driving her to alcoholism through intensive psychological bullying where he manages to turn the musical refrain she’s practicing into an almost Pavlovian cue that makes her feel inadequate and deeply unsettled. Then, when he turns his attentions to Peter, it’s in part due to his own interest in the kid, but also seems in part a ploy to torture her further and sever Rose’s connection with her son. So in killing Phil, Peter completes his mission of protecting his mother, ensuring her health and happiness. The scene where Peter gently cuddles a rabbit before breaking its neck is an eerie mirror of what he ultimately does with Phil—lulling him into a false sense of security before killing him. And before this, we get a sense of Peter’s coldness when he brings home a different rabbit and lets the household believe it’s a cuddly pet, but the next thing we see he’s dissecting its lifeless body. On some level, Phil himself notes Peter’s inner steeliness. It’s one reason why, after directing so much abuse at Peter, Phil abruptly makes himself the boy’s mentor. We can trace this change back to the scene where Peter walks past the ranchers shouting homophobic catcalls, then has the guts to turn around and walk directly past them again. In Campion’s words, “Phil’s impressed.” It’s after Phil witnesses this show of courage that he calls Peter over and their relationship takes a turn.
Phil: “We kind of got off on the wrong foot. I’m gonna finish this rope and give it to you and teach you how to use it.” - The Power of the Dog
But despite witnessing Peter’s surprising toughness on multiple occasions, Phil still greatly underestimates Peter, because his first impression of the boy is that Peter is effeminate. And because Peter’s not as physically coordinated as some of the cowboys, Phil wrongly thinks Peter isn’t strong. Campion calls the film “a David and Goliath story,” and as in that story, it’s the smaller, unintimidating David figure who comes out on top through cunning.
In addition to defending his mother, another possible explanation for Peter killing Phil is that he’s trying to kill his desire for Phil. Campion confirms that both Phil and Peter are gay, and Slate’s Dana Stevens raises the possibility that Peter’s “other motivation for killing him is anxiety provoked by this flirtation and this strange connection that they have.” The erotic energy between them is at its highest in the barn when Phil is finishing the rope, a scene Wegner calls “The Love Scene.” She explains, “Although they don’t actually touch, all that longing, desire and sensuality is in what their hands are doing… Their feelings are very strong, but kept tightly inside for self-protection. The Love Scene is a culmination of that.” Peter handling the rope at the end of the film suggests Phil isn’t just a quickly-forgotten blip in his life, but a ghost that will continue to haunt him, much as Phil’s late love Bronco Henry haunted Phil.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Peter will go on to be as permanently repressed in his sexuality as Phil was; it’s possible he saw that Phil was an unhealthy, negative manifestation of that sexuality (in addition to being a danger), and thus couldn’t represent any possible future for Peter and his family.
Kodi Smit-McPhee: “There’s a beautiful conversation there to be had about the possibilities if Phil wasn’t such a horrible person to be around that there would have been more possibility that there would have been chemistry, that there could have been a future there.” - Collider Interview
The Toxic Cowboy
In today’s terms, the overarching theme of The Power of the Dog is toxic masculinity. But the film isn’t simply pointing out that this exists—it’s showing us how it comes to be, festers, and destroys people.
This is Campion’s first movie with a male protagonist, and her decision to make the movie (her first in over a decade) was influenced by the #MeToo movement. She says, “It was such a powerful force that I think it opened up a whole different space to explore this kind of subject matter. It was like those women, young women mostly, had peeled away so many layers of the onion as regards masculinity, that it created a space for old warriors like myself to explore a very male story like this one.”
The book that the movie is based on begins with the line, “Phil always did the castrating,” and a scene vividly describing this process. Castration is a taking away of masculinity, so we see that this is a world where masculinity is determined by external forces. In the film, this comes through in the way Peter’s delicate, effeminate manner seems like a threat to the ranchers. As Guy Lodge writes for The Guardian, Phil may be “fearing that a kid who cares so little for performative masculinity will see right through his own.” Phil actually seems enraged by Peter’s effeminacy, especially in the scene where they first meet and he sees Peter’s paper flowers. Similarly, Phil reacts so strongly (and negatively) to Rose because of her very femininity. In Campion’s words, “Her natural warmth as a woman, her loveliness, her beauty… Phil saw her coming into his world with such strong feminine energy.” In Phil’s world, masculinity rules.
But the root of Phil’s toxic masculinity is that he can’t be himself as a gay man. Phil repeatedly brings up his old mentor Bronco Henry with a tone of adoration, and the fact that Phil keeps Bronco Henry’s scarf in his pants strongly implies the sexual nature of their relationship. As he tells the story of Bronco Henry saving his life, we see Phil running his hands down the phallic object of the rope. Star Benedict Cumberbatch believes that Bronco Henry’s death caused Phil to enter a state of arrested development.
Benedict Cumberbatch: “The one person he loved who dies when he’s 19. That’s in the book, that’s not in the film. [...] So everything about him, everything about his development is arrested, it’s stunted.” - Netflix Interview
Phil has continued to hold onto this powerful love for decades after Bronco’s death, and what adds to this pain is that Phil can’t openly call that romantic love what it is. Once Phil stops harassing Peter and takes the boy under his wing, Phil’s motivation seems to be recreating the bond he had with Bronco.
So while Phil is a hostile, vicious person, he is also a tragic figure who we can pity. Producer Tanya Seghatchian said that Campion is “fantastic at embodying the outsiders, the mute, the people who are not heard… and I think here with Phil, she saw this very very complex character who presents one way, and is another way, that the secrets have turned him into the monster that he is but that there’s a deep vulnerability in there too.” In the scene where Phil undresses and bathes in a private swimming hole, this is one of the only times he lets his guard down and can just be. But of course, he’s alone with this secret ritual. Even when he begins trying to connect with Peter, the only way he’s able to show his interest is by attempting to toughen Peter up (which seems to be how Bronco Henry expressed interest in Phil).
The cowboy has long embodied a rugged masculine ideal in American mythology. In classic movie westerns, this figure is lionized for his toughness, stoicism, and independence. But Helen O’Hara, author of Women vs Hollywood, argues that today, “female-made Westerns are really tackling toxic masculinity and the ways in which men’s attempts to prove themselves as men can backfire, rather than glorifying the myth of the cowboy as the older, traditional Western did.” Initially, Phil does appear every inch the traditional alpha-male cowboy, and his introductory shot even evokes the iconic image of John Wayne at the end of The Searchers. But he’s a bully—very much lacking the human decency and honor cowboys once represented on screen. The cowboys of classic westerns are usually framed as protectors against the perceived “threat” of Native Americans (who were often reduced to racist caricatures)—but in The Power of the Dog, we learn Phil would rather burn perfectly good hides than give them to Native Americans. It’s a detail that underlines he’s spiteful and petty to a degree that he’s willing to be absurdly wasteful. Phil’s wealthy, sophisticated background also isn’t at all in line with what we’d expect of a hardened rancher.
Governor Edward: “Phi Beta Kappa at Yale, wasn’t it?”
George: “Yes, in classics.” - The Power of the Dog
But his choice of classics as a major also seems associated with his sexuality – his stash of porn magazines feels influenced by ancient Greek culture, and in this period sexual relationships between an older man and usually teen boys were socially acceptable. In fact, many scholars read the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus in The Iliad as a romantic one. So this is a different model of masculinity that Phil is clearly drawn to, but feels he has to hide. Ultimately, Phil’s tough exterior is really a shield he’s put on to hide his sensitive side. Masculinities of the past are often idealized as if there used to be archetypal “real men” who have since gone extinct. But many modern onscreen stories have set out to contest this idea—like the way Mad Men exposes the past masculine ideal of the suited-up ad man with the perfect wife and a house in the suburbs as a fraud. Similarly, Phil represents the past, especially in contrast to the story’s other characters.
Benedict Cumberbatch: “George sort of marks the future, not just because he’s looking to Rose, but he’s interested in his car and he’s always tinkering with his car, and it’s the beginning of mechanization. [...] Phil, he’s very much wedded to the old way of doing things.” - Netflix Interview
Phil is looking back to his love with Bronco, while his brother George (a more sweet, supportive, and modern version of masculinity) looks towards a new love. And even more than George, Peter embodies the future. Peter’s future wins out, while The Power of the Dog’s portrait of Phil reveals that the “stoicism” old cowboy movies celebrated was often emotional or sexual repression—part of a made-up story we tell ourselves to disguise more complex realities.
The Power of the Dog draws out the homoeroticism that’s arguably present in other examples of the Western genre—through the imagery and tone of scenes like the ranchers’ almost all-male environment and the scene of the men bathing naked together in the river. This makes The Power of the Dog a subversive example of the Western form, and it’s why the film has been seen as controversial and even made some angry. Yellowstone and veteran Western actor Sam Elliott took issue with the film painting cowboys as (in his view) Chippendale dancers and was bothered by “the allusions to homosexuality throughout the f**king movie.” As these comments underline, adding queerness into a cowboy story—or challenging the classic Western mythology—still strikes a nerve.
Elliott complained that Campion (a “woman from New Zealand,” who shot the movie in New Zealand) had little right to speak to the way the “American West” was—but actually, the source novel of The Power of the Dog is infused with elements of the author Thomas Savage’s true experience. Like Peter’s, Savage’s mother married a rancher. Phil is inspired by Savage’s step-uncle William Brenner who Campion describes as “talented—like, great chess player and, you know, went to Yale, et cetera—but also, like, a really hardened cowboy and terrible bully.” Savage may seem to have put the most of himself into Peter, but like Phil, Savage was a closeted gay man, even marrying a woman and having three children with her.
Campion responded to Elliott’s comments:
Jane Campion: “He was being a little bit of a b-i-t-c-h. [...] He’s not a cowboy, he’s an actor. And the West is a mythic space and there’s a lot of room on the mythic range.” - Variety Interview
And she also noted that his comments seemed related to her being a woman entering this space:
Jane Campion: “I think it is a little bit sexist.” - Variety Interview
In its exploration of a queer rancher, the film also can’t help recalling Brokeback Mountain. While working on the script, Campion was actually in contact with Annie Proulx, who wrote the short story Brokeback Mountain is based on (and also wrote the afterword to Savage’s novel). Yet while both stories examine the fraught relationship between two closeted gay men in the American West, Brokeback Mountain is a romantic and heart-wrenching love story, while The Power of the Dog shows its gay characters weaponizing their sexuality against each other. While Brokeback Mountain’s lovers experience hatred from without, Phil has internalized that hatred within, and that’s why his expectations of what it means to be “a man” have the power to torture and kill him.
What Does the Title Mean?
So what does The Power of the Dog’s mysterious title really mean? The Bible verse is the last line of the movie, spoken by Peter:
Peter: “Deliver my soul from the sword, my darling from the power of the dog.” - The Power of the Dog
Psalm 22:20 is spoken by King David and refers to David’s enemies, while also paralleling Jesus’ crucifixion in Psalm 22:16: “For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet.” “The power of the dog” refers, then, to evil people—which in the context of the movie seems like it’s describing Phil. “My darling” is Rose, since she is the loved one Peter seeks to protect from Phil’s savage attacks. This is even more overt in the novel, which explains from Peter’s perspective, “For she was delivered now—thanks to his father’s sacrifice and to the sacrifice he himself had found it possible to make from a knowledge got from his father’s big black books. The dog was dead.” A less obvious interpretation could also read “my darling” as Phil, who in a sense had to be saved from himself. Ultimately, Phil is the biggest victim of his own hatred, consumed by it and unable to really come back from it—so you could view Peter’s murder as almost a mercy killing, saving the “dog” in Phil from the “darling” in him (whom Peter actually did love).
The movie’s other reference to a dog is the dog shape in the hill.
Phil: “Most people look at it and just see a hill. When Bronco looked at it, what do you suppose he saw?”
Peter: “A barking dog.” - The Power of the Dog
So “the power of the dog” may be this special ability to see a deeper reality that others can’t (or choose not to)—which both men have and which suggests to Phil they’re connected, like he and Bronco Henry were. But while Phil brags that Bronco Henry taught him to do this, Peter has an innate knack for it that stuns Phil.
Phil: “You just saw that?”
Peter: “Yeah.” - The Power of the Dog
And it foreshadows Peter’s larger talent for playing to Phil’s weaknesses and orchestrating his master plan.
Campion describes her movie’s title as a “kind of warning.” She explains, “The power of the dog is all those urges, all those deep, uncontrollable urges that can come and destroy us.” The best way to avoid this destruction is by examining who we really are—and in the end, Phil’s downfall is his inability to do this. This ability to “see” the dog (something the average person, or probably most people, can’t comfortably do) is precisely what makes Peter so strong—much more so than the ability to ride a horse well. He can face the powerful darkness in Phil and manipulate it to serve the outcome he wants.
Lodge writes that The Power of the Dog reveals “the secret lives and minds of men who want to seem more straight and simple than they are.” In reality, no one is ever as “simple” as they present themselves. An aggressive exterior can belie deep vulnerability, just as a gentle one can conceal ruthless cunning. To deliver ourselves from the power of the dog is to peer behind the mask, and see the complicated truths the rest of the world overlooks. But this is a rare ability— and as the character of Phil Burbank proves, it’s hardest to do with ourselves.