The Power Of The Dog meaning explored as Jane Campion film premieres

Bruno Cooke November 23, 2021

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The Power Of The Dog, directed by Jane Campion and based on the 1967 novel of the same name, stars Benedict Cumberbatch (among others) as Phil Burbank – “severe, pale-eyed, handsome”, and hiding a secret “that would have made him vulnerable in the story’s setting of 1920s Montana” – a wealthy ranch owner. What does the “power of the dog” mean in the context of the movie, and why might author Thomas Savage have chosen it for the book?

What is the meaning of The Power Of The Dog?

Rudyard Kipling wrote the poem, The Power Of The Dog, in 1922. The poem sniffs around the themes of joy and sorrow, and also human/animal relationships. But its overall meaning doesn’t seem to have much bearing on Jane Campion’s 2021 film The Power Of The Dog.

Thomas Savage, who died just 18 years ago, wrote the novel from which Campion’s film is adapted in 1967. He was in his early 50s; it was his fifth novel. He drew from his own upbringing – he spent much of his childhood in Montana himself.

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The Power of the Dog | Official Trailer | Netflix

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The Power of the Dog | Official Trailer | Netflix
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The book’s plot focuses on two brothers. George is simple but honest. Phil, meanwhile, is malicious and darkly homophobic. 

The New Yorker has compared Campion’s adaptation visually to Brokeback Mountain – a reference to the sense one gets that Cumberbatch’s character, Phil Burbank, is struggling to bury a deeply repressed homosexuality. But ultimately, writes the NY, it is about revenge.

What has Benedict Cumberbatch said about playing a gay character in The Power Of The Dog?

It is no secret that Phil Burbank is gay – Pink News called him a “queer rancher”.

For his part, Cumberbatch said the decision to play the role “wasn’t done without thought”. The character’s hidden life appealed: “there was a lot that was private, hidden from view”.

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Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

The debate over whether or not straight actors should play gay roles is not new. In the present case, Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays Peter Gordon, the teenage boy whom Phil so ruthlessly taunts, identifies as a straight man.

Although, he told IndieWire, he is “extremely in touch with my feminine side”.

What does the power of the dog represent in the book and film?

The parallels between Phil Burbank’s toxic masculinity and the cultural trope of the vicious dog are fairly obvious. Dogs occupy an interesting space in language and culture. 

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Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for Deadline

Typical associations with home and loyalty have a flip side: dogs also guard, attack and defend. In the context of Savage’s book, Campion’s film and Cumberbatch’s character, one might interpret the “power of the dog” that swells within the angry, sexually repressed cowboy as a guarding force.

Burbank unleashes vicious energy at those around him as a mechanism by which to conceal a part of himself he cannot accept. Gay culture may have “blossomed” in the US during the Roaring Twenties, but, by and large, such advances likely bypassed rural communities such as Burbank’s.

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Bruno is a postgraduate student studying global journalism, with research interests in the intersection of the media, storytelling, culture and politics. His articles have appeared in Groundviews, Packs Light and Forge Press, and most are readable on Medium or onurbicycle.com. He is a Student Ambassador for Tortoise Media, a big fan of Freddie Mercury and a novelist – his debut novel, Reveries, is available on Amazon.