Movies

Two Critics Debate Power of the Dog’s Surprising, Sneaky Ending

The Netflix movie is considered the Best Picture frontrunner, but it may take two viewings to grasp how it all comes together.

Peter and Phil in Power of the Dog.
Keep a close eye on one of these two. Netflix.

The Power of the Dog is widely considered one of the best movies of the year, but that doesn’t mean it’ll reveal itself to you the first time you watch it. Jane Campion’s movie starts as a Western, flirts with becoming a romance, and by the end unveils itself as a slow-burn thriller, complete with a surprise whodunnit, the answer to which is hinted at almost as subtly as the murder itself.

On this week’s Spoiler Special podcast, Slate’s movie critic, Dana Stevens, and its features editor, Jeffrey Bloomer, dissected the new Netflix movie’s final twists in gory detail. The following transcript has been adapted from that discussion.

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Dana Stevens: You wanted to talk because you wanted to love this movie as a longtime Jane Campion fan, and, I gather, did not love it. So I want to hear about that reaction first.

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Jeffrey Bloomer: I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I found the movie just absolutely miserable. And not only in the ways that it wanted you to feel miserable. I was primed to love it. I mean, I’ve always loved Jane Campion movies. She’s made this spare brutal Western. It has a low-key homoerotic thriller hidden in it. There are naked cowboys everywhere, and these beautiful long shots, and it’s just filled with the things that you would think would be a total gimme for me. And I like a challenging, punishing movie, but this one just left me cold. I really hated watching almost every moment of it the first time through.

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Stevens: And yet, you watched it again.

Bloomer: I did. Because afterward, I was starting to read the reviews, and I was like, “There’s got to be something I’m missing here.” And a lot of places mentioned that the second time the movie opens up a little bit. They all said something like, “Oh, this might sound like a nightmare of a movie, but when you watch it again, you start to understand the construction of it.” And I did, and I did start to understand it. But I’m not sure that I liked it any better because of that. I am now starting to appreciate it.

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Stevens: I’m really glad that we disagree about it because we can explore different responses to it. I didn’t understand the story the first time either. I literally didn’t get the final twist until I had seen it a second time. And the second time made me admire the movie more than the first time because it wasn’t just sort of the sensations, but I started to get a sense of how tautly this story is constructed.

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Bloomer: Yeah. I think especially the first time watching it, there’s a certain menace to the relationship between Peter and Phil, and you’re waiting for it all to snap. You can’t quite tell if Phil is trying to assume Bronco Henry-type role with Peter. There’s a scene where they’re sort of whispering to each other about a time that Bronco Henry saved Phil’s life. And I think it’s that they huddled in a sleeping bag together when they got caught in extreme weather, and Pete goes, “Were you naked?” And Phil doesn’t say anything. It’s building and building toward what you imagine is going to be an unfortunate outcome. But I, at least the first time I watched it, did not understand who the actually sinister person in that interaction is.

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You get little hints of it. There’s the scene where he brings his mother a rabbit, and then—let it be said that it’s not a good movie for rabbits—the next thing you know he has dissected it. He’s like, “Oh, I need to learn how innards work.” And you’re like, OK. And the movie goes on like that where Pete has a lot more agency than you think, especially in the relationship with Phil, and he increasingly starts to feel like an equal to him. And the first time you watch it, you maybe assume that Phil’s eventually going to snap on him, but it goes a different direction.

Stevens: Right. Well, that scene we mentioned in the barn with the saddle and the stories about Bronco Henry also explicitly makes the point. And I think Pete asks the question, “How old were you when you befriended Bronco Henry? What was the age difference between you?” And it’s pretty clearly set out that it’s the same as the current age difference between Peter and Phil, right? So, you start to think at that moment that there’s some sort of seduction being set in place, but like you say, exactly who is seducing whom and for what purpose remains mysterious. And it is really true that Peter is starting to take back the reins already in that scene, right? I mean, when he asks, “Were you naked?,” he is needling Phil in a very Phil-like way to his face. So, that kind of reversal of the power dynamic, I thought at that point in the movie, once you see it a second time, all makes a lot of sense, but it’s something that’s very hard to read. You honestly don’t know.

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Bloomer: Yeah, absolutely. And you don’t really know much about Peter’s sexuality. Whereas with Phil at a certain point, it’s very clear that he, at the least, heavily eroticizes what happened with Bronco Henry: what this life means, what the dirt means, the whole layer of the cowboy mystique, all of that is very erotic to him. And then with Pete, you don’t exactly know what’s going on. He mentions that he has a friend at school—he calls the friend professor and the friend calls him doctor because that’s what they want to be—but he won’t bring their friend around because of Phil. And so, you don’t really know what’s going on there, but it does feel like their relationship is building toward something erotic at least.

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Stevens: And also a little bit of a paternal situation. I mean, there’s a moment that they go off riding a horse together and Rose, Pete’s mother is saying, “No, don’t go. I don’t want him to go.” Right? She feels this fear about the closeness that he’s achieving with this guy who’s become her nemesis around the ranch.

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Bloomer: And I think we’ve neglected Rose because the movie neglects her a little bit, but she is increasingly losing the thread. She’s just drinking more and more. And she’s just really coming undone. This gets into the clues that the movie drops from the very first moment—there’s this little spoken prologue before we even see anyone, and it’s Pete speaking. And he says, “When my father died, all I ever wanted to do was protect my mother. And what kind of man would I be if I didn’t protect my mother?” So, you don’t remember that the first time you see it, but when you start watching it the second time, you’re like, “Oh, OK.”

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Anyway, she’s losing it. And crucially, some Native Americans come through the land. And one is asking about trading for some hides.

Stevens: That scene winds up being more about Rose and about her motivation to give the hides away, which she then tries to do, right? She winds up trading them instead for a pair of gloves, but she wants to sort of undo the evil that she sees as Phil having done toward herself and toward the world by giving away these hides. And of course, by doing that, she is also guaranteeing that there’s going to be some kind of scary repercussion from Phil.

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[Read: The Power of the Dog Marks the Culmination of a Master’s 40-Year Career]

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Bloomer: It sets up what we know is going to be a volcanic reaction when he returns. But then when Phil’s about to lose it, Pete comes and says, “Oh, well I have some hide that you can use.” And we know earlier in the movie, Pete, on his own, found a dead cow and started cutting it up. And we don’t think much of it at the time because he’s prone to cutting up animals in this movie.

Stevens: Well, exactly. I think that’s a really good misdirect on Campion’s part. So, we see, yes, that he finds a dead cow on the trail during his ride and starts dissecting it. But we’ve already seen that he’s obsessed with dissection, right? We’re not going to necessarily spin out some sort of murder plot from that. And this is what I really didn’t get until both a conversation with Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays Pete, and seeing the movie a second time, is that he’s got this slow-burn plan to kill the man who is tormenting his mother, and possibly his other motivation for killing him is anxiety provoked by this flirtation and this strange connection that they have. We don’t really know exactly what Pete’s motivations are. He may be the most unreadable character of the four. But much, much earlier, you heard a minor character say something about looking out for an anthrax outbreak, but what does Pete do? His long-term plan is that he skins this animal so that he has this anthrax infected hide. And then Phil also has a cut on his hand, which is also crucial to him contracting the disease.

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All of this comes together in a second scene in the barn—which is both I think the creepiest, and maybe the most erotic in a weird way, scene in the movie—where the two men, Phil and Pete, find themselves back in the barn again. This special hide has been delivered up to Phil, and you see him plunge his hand, his wounded hand into this water where the hide is soaking. The first time I saw that, I thought nothing of it. If anything, it just seemed like, “Why are we so concentrated on this hand in a bolt of water?” But of course, once you figure out what’s going on with the hide, that is a really creepy moment to watch.

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Bloomer: Yes. It all happens quite quickly. There’s that scene where you think they may be about to consummate things, and then instead we cut to next morning, and Phil is very sick and doesn’t come down for breakfast. They go up to find him kind of delirious. George takes him to the doctor.

Stevens: And then a crazy thing is that that’s the last you see of Phil. This movie always changing its focus and changing its perspective or protagonist. You would think that then what you would do is visit him in the hospital, right? See how sick he is, hear people talk about it. But then I believe that that’s the last you ever see him alive.

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Bloomer: I think that’s right. They’re all at his funeral shortly after that. The person who notably is not there is Peter. And then the doctor comes up to George and says, “Look, I don’t know what happened. We’ll know in a few days, but what I’m thinking is anthrax.” And then George says something like, “Well, that’s weird, because Phil was really good about avoiding sick animals.” And then perhaps you realize what happened.

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But then they get back to the house, and Rose looks better, like maybe she’s not drinking so much anymore, and there’s this sort of sweet moment where they actually seem to connect again for their first time since earlier in the movie. They kiss each other in front of the house. And then we see that Pete is watching them, and he turns around and he smiles, the smile that’s giving me goosebumps just to even think about it. It’s a real chilling reveal moment where you realize that the person that you thought had the power and the cards in the movie was someone completely different. And then, with gloves on, he takes the rope and slowly puts it under the bed, because he knows what’s on the rope. And it’s quite obvious that he orchestrated the whole thing. And then that’s it, baby! You get “power of the dog” and that’s the end of the movie.

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Stevens: Yeah, I believe before he spots his mother and her husband outside, he reads himself a Bible verse that is where the title of the movie comes from, right?

Bloomer: Yes.

Stevens: From the Psalms. “Deliver my soul from the sword, my darling from the power of the dog.” And so, you see that he’s in fact, been cooking up this plan all along and that he sees himself as a kind of angel of vengeance, which loops back again to that opening voiceover and him kind of becoming the protector of his mother. You have to say this for it, Jeffrey, it’s a real ending. And I admire that. This movie does not trail off vaguely. Even if there’s a mystery to it, and you might have to see it a second time to get all the details, it ends on a true twist, on a chilling, as you say, a chilling smile and a chilling gesture of sliding the poisoned rope under the bed. And to me, that was just a very satisfying buckle at the end of this movie. I appreciate that compactness about it. The fact that all the choices that it makes are very deliberate choices.

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Bloomer: Yeah, absolutely. I admire it too, and as I said, I’m a huge, huge Jane Campion fan. It’s just, for me, I don’t really want to have to watch a movie twice to understand it on a basic level. And maybe that says more about me, but I also think that movies should do a little bit more than this one did to connect the dots, unless it’s pointed ambiguity. But as you say, there is a real, tight plot here.

Stevens: No. I share the annoyance of not wanting to see a movie twice to understand it, but I feel like you could still get a lot from this movie, even if you didn’t understand every story detail. And as I say, the mere fact that it clicks into place at the end, is very satisfying to me. What I really can’t stand is a movie that deliberately dangles you, ambivalently over some sort of abyss at the end and then sort of pretends that’s great filmmaking. And I don’t think this movie would fall in that category.

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Bloomer: Oh, not at all. Watching it again, the ending is very satisfying, and I think it is going to go down as one of the great climaxes of recent years, even if I didn’t get it at all. Watching it again, I see now that it is just such a powerful punch at the end.

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Stevens: See, I feel like the more you talk … Are you talking yourself into liking this movie any better? Because you barely said anything negative about it.

Bloomer: Well, I have to tell you that when I came out of it for the first time, I felt almost like I was being punk’d. It’s like one of those—I don’t know if you ever had that experience where you really hear great things about a movie and you go see it, and you’re like, “Am I watching the same fucking thing everybody else is?” And that’s how I felt the first time I saw this, but yeah, having read a lot about it and watched it again, the craftsmanship is just sort overwhelming and it’s hard to dislike it completely, but I stand by that it’s a very unpleasant watch. And not only in the obvious ways.

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Stevens: Right. You could say that that protagonist-lessness that I was talking about is a weakness of the movie in some ways, and that it may keep you at an emotional distance. You’re not exactly sure who to trust, who to identify with. And ultimately, that makes you watch the story from on high, rather than from a really embedded place in the characters’ psychologies.

Bloomer: I think that’s totally right. This is exactly why I wanted to talk about it with you. You’ve helped unlock the problems with the movie, to make me feel better about not liking it—and also to like it even more.

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