Watch out! This post contains spoilers.
Netflix’s “The Power of the Dog,” starring Kirsten Dunst, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, and Kodi Smit-McPhee, is a front-runner at the 2022 Oscars. The movie — written and directed by legendary director Jane Campion — is about two brothers, Phil (Cumberbatch) and George (Plemons), who run a ranch in Montana in the 1920s. When George marries Rose (Dunst) and accepts her son Peter (Smit-McPhee) as his step-son, Phil makes it his business to try to chase them off. He envies Rose for capturing his brother’s attention and hates Peter for what he perceives as his femininity. Phil, it turns out, is fighting his own internalized homophobia and mourning his mentor, Bronco Henry. All of this ultimately leads to a complicated ending and Phil’s death.
The very beginning of the film is helpful when considering the ending. At the start, Peter says in a voiceover, “When my father passed, I wanted nothing more than my mother’s happiness. For what kind of man would I be if I did not help my mother? If I did not save her?” Thematically, this comes up over and over — what kind of man is Peter and what kind of man does he want to be? At one point, he tells Phil that his own father told him before he died that Peter was not kind enough. Phil scoffs at this, but it shows how Phil underestimates Peter and the cold calculation he’s capable of.
Early in the movie, it’s also mentioned that Phil always stays away from dead, dying, and sick cows because they might have anthrax. In 2022, anthrax is most associated with the white powder that was used in attacks in the early 2000s, but in the 1920s, it was known as a bacteria that could affect plants and the animals that eat them, like cattle.
After Rose and George marry, Peter goes to medical school, wanting to be a doctor like his father. When he heads to the ranch for summer break, what he finds is heartbreaking: his mother, constantly menaced by Phil, has become an alcoholic after a lifetime of never drinking. At first, Phil attacks Peter, too, but Phil is slowly able to use ranching as a way to gain Phil’s trust.
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