Power of the Dog

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S1: I want to tell you my secret now. I’ve seen. Soylent Green is people. No, I. What’s in the box?

S2: You know, you’re blowing up down here all day. Oh.

S3: Hello and welcome to another Slate Spoiler special podcast, I’m Dana Stevens Slate’s movie critic, and today I am joined by Slate’s features editor, Jeffrey Bloomer. Hey, Jeffrey. Hi, Dana. So we’ll be talking about Power of the Dog Jane Campion eighth feature film, and it’s seems like this is going to be a big movie during awards season now that awards season is starting to get underway. This movie just won three awards from the New York film Critics Circle. I think it was Benedict Cumberbatch winning Best Actor Kodi Smit-McPhee, who I’m sure we’ll talk about in our conversation, winning Best Supporting Actor and Jane Campion winning Best Director. Jeffrey, you wanted to come in and talk about this movie for a couple of reasons with me. I tend to start off spoiler specials with this evaluative question to sort of get it off the table because we’re not really here to review. But you wanted to come on 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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S4: Yeah, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I found the movie just absolutely miserable and not only in the way that it wanted you to feel miserable like I. I was so primed to love it. I mean, I’ve always loved Jane Campion movies. She’s made this like spare, brutal western. It has like a low key homoerotic thriller hidden in it. There’s naked cowboys everywhere and these ridiculous long shots, and it’s just like 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, and I really hated watching almost every moment of it the first time through.

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S3: And yet you watched it again.

S4: 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 this was mentioned that the second time the movie opens up a little bit like 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, although I am now starting to appreciate it.

S3: Yeah. Well, OK, I’m really glad that we disagree about it because we can explore different responses to it. I think my response to this movie, initially upon seeing it was This is dazzlingly beautiful. You know the the music by Jonny Greenwood, the score is really extraordinary. Maybe we can listen to a little bit of that here to give a sense of the ambient mood of the movie because the score is very omnipresent. You know, the cinematography is sweeping the landscapes it’s filmed in New Zealand, although its passing is Montana, set in Montana is gorgeous, but I didn’t understand the story the first time I literally didn’t get the final twist, which which we’ll get to soon here 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, right? But I started to get a sense of how tightly this story is constructed, and I was pretty impressed by just the architecture of this movie, like every single twist has been prepared for and put in place to a degree that, you know, if you were better than me at deciphering clues in movies, you might have guessed the ending the first time around. But not only did I not guess it, I don’t think I even could have explained what happened the first time I saw it because I was more just enthralled to the to the sensations of watching the film. And it’s funny, but the negative reactions that I’ve heard to this movie in general, I have a few friends, critic friends who don’t like it or don’t love it, and their response has more to do with an idea that it was overfamiliar. They felt like the themes of toxic masculinity and of repressed homosexuality were were just overdone and things that they saw coming from a mile away. But that doesn’t seem to be your problem with it.

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S4: No, I mean, I guess I was like, you, I’m so glad to hear you say that you didn’t understand the ending because as I saw in the theater the first time, because I figured that was only fair to the movie, even though it’s on Netflix and my viewing companion was like, Oh, I guess he really felt like he had to kill him. And I was like, What? Like, I kind of understood something weird was going on there, but I thought maybe it was an accident.

S3: After my first viewing, I clarified the ending in an unusual way, which is that I went to a reception Netflix was throwing for the movie, which was one of the first, you know, party parties I’ve been to in two years, actually, because Netflix did a very thorough job of making sure you had proven not just vaccination, but an actual negative test within 24 hours before this party. Anyway, it was this kind of great, maskless affair. And one of the people there was Kodi Smit-McPhee and and he was the one that I ended up asking. I went up to him, complimented on his performance, and then just said, Can you explain the ending of this movie to me? What did your character do? And he was laughing and said that I was not the first person who would come to him with that question. So it seems like it’s a universal problem with the end of this film.

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S4: Yeah, we’ll talk a lot about it, but I’ve noticed he’s doing a little press tour at this point where he has a pretty interesting and expansive view of what actually happened that we can talk to as we get to it.

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S3: OK, well, then we should maybe set up the movie. I mean, we’re assuming since this is a spoiler special, that people have probably seen the movie, but let’s let’s take it back to the beginning and talk about the movie that opens this movie right where you think it’s going to be a different kind of story. And something I think is really intriguing about Power of the Dog is how the protagonist, if there is one, keeps on changing. Right? But at the beginning of the movie, I would say that the protagonist is set up to be Rose Kirsten Dunst character, who is this innkeeper in a small town in Montana. We don’t learn very much about her backstory, but we know that she’s widowed. We much later learned that she’s widowed because her husband committed suicide by hanging, and she has this son who’s maybe, I guess, his character is supposed to be about 18, right? Eighteen nineteen. Something like that. Something like that. A son who helps her run the inn and wait tables, which is how we first meet him waiting on tables for these sort of roughnecks who come into this remote inn and her son also has. I don’t know what you call his style exactly, but he has this withdrawn, somewhat effeminate way of presenting right that makes him a butt of jokes. In the end, as he as he serves the customers and the customer who mocks him the most and who we see at the very beginning of the film. Setting fire to his paper flowers that he has made to decorate the tables is Benedict Cumberbatch is filled. Do you want to talk about Phil?

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S4: Yeah. So Phil is we first see him a little bit before this diner scene where he’s at home with his brother. And then before that, they’re sort of talking about how it’s the 25th anniversary of them being ranch hands, I guess, is what you call them. I don’t know what the term is, but it’s the first time you really hear mention of this sort of mysterious figure from their past called Bronco Henry. And Phil wants to go out to the deep wilderness and do some sort of spiritual thing around the 25th anniversary, and that brother does not seem interested in that at all. Phil is played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Phil is dirty. Phil really likes being dirty. L’etre starts to seem almost kinky because it’s like clear how or how much he eroticized as being dirty and being filthy and a man of the land. And he’s just really, really, really nasty. And it’s like, sort of very obvious that is going to be the through line of his character is just how cruel he is to everyone around him, including this boy who’s named Peter in the movie he calls him Miss Nancy. Among other things, he makes fun of his lisp, and that seems to really affect the Kirsten Dunst character rose. Maybe even more so than it affects Peter, who sort of has this methodical ways of dealing with it, like hula hooping and playing with his comb and stuff. And so we’re in this that that tense scene basically sets up everything that’s going to come after it just in sort of fits and starts depending on which person you’re following, right?

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S3: And one more character we should mention, because this is sort of a chamber piece about four different characters is George Burbank, played by Jesse Plemons. Who is Phil’s brother, who is, you know, more of an upstanding showering member of society? They’re actually quite wealthy, right? I mean, the Burbank brothers are shown as being these wealthy ranchers who have, we gather, inherited their ranch and and Jesse Plemons character George has gone down the path that his parents would have chosen for him of managing the ranch and being a member of civilized society. Whereas Phil, who we also learn from some little dropped hints here and there is this highly educated and very brilliant man who has a degree in classics, has instead, you know, decided to basically go feral and live with among and like the ranch hands.

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S4: Yes. And Phil being Phil, he calls George Fatso because he’s like, you know, the only person in the movie that’s not completely around.

S3: I mean, this is something that’s really it’s put in place from very early on is that Phil is really brilliant at finding people’s weak points, right and and exploiting them. And we see him doing that with all three of the other main characters from the beginning that he has this relentless way of figuring out how to humiliate and shame them most successfully given their own personality type. And, you know, just just hammering away at that very thing. So what you might think of as Chapter two of the movie is where we move from this in in a small town in Montana to the Burbank ranch itself. And that happens because George eventually comes back and proposes marriage to the Kirsten Dunst character rose, even though they don’t seem to know each other very well. You get a bit of a sense that it’s a marriage of a combination of convenience and loneliness for both of them, right? And there’s a sort of awkward scene together after their first married, where they’re driving back to the ranch and sort of stopped to take in the landscape and just seem very uncomfortable with each other and seem not to be quite sure what kind of life they’re meeting to embark on together. At the same time, Pete Peter, the young boy is sent to. We’re not sure if it’s medical school, or maybe it’s some version of high school boarding school. I guess it depends on how old his character is supposed to be, but he’s interested in studying medicine, and he goes off on his own as his mother goes to the ranch to live with her new husband.

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S4: Yes, and once there it begins the sequence of the movie that I found the most grueling of all. Both times I watched it. And that’s like, you know, this is a movie where rabbits are about to be dismembered and like bulls are castrated in front of you. And there’s a lot to coming in this movie that’s difficult to stomach, but this sequence is just grotesque. Basically, it becomes clear that George is expecting. He’s trying to be more of a society man, I suppose. And in the house, he insists on bringing in this piano that he seems to think that Rose can play and she kind of can. But like, not really, seemingly. And she soon they soon invite their parents out. And also what I thought to be the governor of Montana, if I’m remembering correctly.

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S3: Yeah, and his wife, exactly.

S4: And he’s set up this idea that she’s going to play them a song. And so this basically this chapter of the movie sort of centers on this gathering in the lead up to it. And what’s happening is is that Rose is trying to learn how to play the piano, and Phil realizes that she can’t really and that she’s extremely nervous about it. And there’s this scene where she’s trying to practice, and he, like, is methodically like above her and the house playing his banjo like perfectly, the song she’s trying to play on the piano, and it’s just absolutely impossible to watch as a complete nightmare.

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S3: But but in a way, Jeffrey, don’t you think? I mean, what you’re saying is like, this is this is hard to watch, which I agree, but it’s extremely effectively done. No, that kind of the banjo piano off that the two of them have four separate rooms.

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S4: I totally agree. I just again, I watch movies that are challenging or punishing to watch. I usually look for them to, like, get into my heart a little bit, and it never happened for me with this one. I guess I just never got close enough to any of the characters. I never really had time to the for the movie to get its hooks into me. It was just, I thought, miserable to watch. But it’s a very effective scene, though. You’re right, you’re absolutely right.

S3: I mean, that scene is torturing you the way that he is torturing her, right? And it’s it’s all done without dialogue. I think it is just it’s extraordinarily done to kind of show the two of them. I mean, she’s not even trying to lay down the gauntlet and challenge him, right? But he is the one who makes it into a competition and undermines her. And he’s so brutal about it that it almost makes you believe the speed with which. And here’s a big spoiler rose proceeds to become an alcoholic. Right? I mean, very early in the movie, we actually see her disapproving of the drunk people that come into her in and party and, you know, roughneck around and play piano. But as soon as she’s isolated in this house by herself, she very quickly starts to numb her pain by drinking. And to me, that was that was utterly believable. Even though it’s a very fast plot development in a pretty fast moving movie, this movie is under two hours and tells a lot of story in those two hours. But honestly, if I had to live with Phil Burbank, I think I would probably be driven to drink very quickly as well.

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S4: Yeah, I agree. I kind of one of the things I didn’t like about the movie was how quickly that character melted into nothing. Even while Kirsten Dunst gives this like amazing, tremulous performance that probably will win her an Oscar. It’s just like, there’s just not a lot of there with that character, and the same can be said of the George character. I think who Jesse Plemons just got to find something to do that’s not playing like noble, quiet, stolid man.

S3: Oh my God. But. Jesse Plemons has played so many evil men Breaking Bad.

S4: Well, that’s true

S3: for the cop, the cop in that in game night, that’s not a bad man, exactly. But that’s just like a sort of a comic villain who’s really hilarious. I guess

S4: you’re right. The latter, I have the latter I haven’t seen, but I kind of forgot about Breaking Bad. I was just thinking of the role that I was introduced to him and really was just like Friday Night Lights. Perhaps that’s not a reasonable criticism of his career, but I do think that given that this movie does pivot around four characters, two of them don’t really have a lot going on. And that is part of the reason that it’s tough for me. But I think this is what you’re saying. I think that it does proceed effectively and then you kind of start to the movie starts to center a little bit more and constrict around Phil and Pete, who comes home from school.

S3: Yes, and that maybe we could think of this as Chapter three. Right? I mean, if Chapter two is Rosemary’s George moves to the ranch and starts to be psyched out and seriously undermined by Phil Burbank. Chapter three would be Peter. The kid comes back from school for summer and becomes a new presence at the ranch, who sets off a whole new set of, you know, rivalries and and competitions that are pretty mysterious. I’m not sure that I’ve completely pieced together yet what happens between Phil and Pete? But do you want to talk a bit about their relationship when he first arrives?

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S4: Yeah. So when he first gets there, still like the Miss Nancy stuff and he’s making Phil’s making fun of him to the other ranch hands who kind of go along with it. And then there’s this really odd scene where he sort of marches up to Phil and is still kind of knocking him for some reason, and it’s not really clear that anything positive is going to happen between the two of them. But then there’s one day where Phil is out walks into like the deep ravines of the area, and he walks past all of these cowboys bathing naked and like splashing around in the water and like, you kind of see it only from a distance from Phil’s perspective, where he kind of feels like there’s an invisible wall where he can’t really join them for some reason. And up to this point, you kind of don’t really understand exactly what’s going on with that. And he keeps going and he’s deep in the woods and he starts masturbating with his handkerchief. That is, I swear this is about Pete. The Handkerchief belong to Bronco Henry.

S3: I love, by the way, that it has a h embroidered on it, a handkerchief like he went by Bronco Henry, not Henry, whatever his last name was. But you know, he actually embroidered his handkerchief, monogrammed it with his and his nickname.

S4: It’s become clear by this point that this figure looms extremely large over them. He’s basically someone who taught the two of them, the brothers the way of the ranch, and a lot more than that, it seems. And so it’s quite clear at this point how deeply Iraq does. All of this is for Phil, and it happens to be that Pete goes out in the woods this day for whatever reason and sees him and finds the stash of magazines that seem to have belonged to Bronco Henry that feature images of Naked Man, among other things, very masculine, built naked men. And then Phil starts to bathe in the ravine afterward with the handkerchief around his neck, and Pete sees him, and Phil sort of chases him naked into the woods. And then the scene breaks. And then he launched into a new section where you start to see a totally different side of the two relationship. Phil kind of goes to him and says, Look, we got off on the wrong foot. I want to teach you some things, and then that starts a whole new chapter of the movie.

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S3: Yeah, I have a lot of questions about this coming section and what happens between those two men. But let’s take a little break right now for a word from our sponsor. All right, so, Jeffrey, let’s get into the part of the movie now, and we’re calling these chapters without acknowledging that Jane Campion does explicitly divide her movie into chapters that I may not be accompanying exactly, but this movie is roughly broken up into five or so sections in each of which I would argue the protagonist changes slightly in the point of view. Changes slightly. Right. So as you said, it sort of moved from rows to fill, and then Pete starts to become a bigger and bigger character after he comes back to the ranch. And especially after that moment you described when he comes upon the naked Phil, first masturbating and then swimming in the river. What do you think is happening between them here? I mean, obviously there is in part an implication of flirtation between the two of them, right? There’s a really intimate scene in the barn where Bronco Henry Saddle, which is kept, as you said in this kind of shrine, gets shown to Pete, and he’s almost sort of invited into this sanctum sanctorum place. But I’m not sure at that moment. I mean, I guess we never really understand Phil’s motivations, right? It’s very hard to see whether he feels erotic, romantic feelings toward the boy or whether he’s trying to entrap him and kind of drive him nuts in the same way that he did to his mother. All of that is somewhat unclear to me, and I wonder if you had thoughts about it.

S4: Yeah, I think especially the first time watching it, there’s a certain menace to it all, and you’re waiting for it all to snap. You can’t quite tell if Phil is trying to like, you know, assume Bronco Henry type role with Pete seems kind of like, that’s what’s happening. There’s a scene where they’re sort of like whispering to each other about a time that Bronco Henry saved Phil’s life. And I think it’s that they, like huddled in a sleeping bag together and like when they got caught in extreme weather and peacocks, were you naked? And Phil and Phil doesn’t say anything. And like, you know, this is the subtext here is taxed on the lot of the time. And you’re sort of it’s building and building toward what you imagine is going to be an unfortunate outcome. But at least I the first time I watched it fully did not understand who the actually sinister person in that interaction is. You get a little hints of it if you go along that Pete is not like a frail kid. I mean, he is in some ways, but he also like, there’s a scene where he brings his mother a rabbit and then let it be said that it’s not a good movie for rabbits. There are multiple murders of rabbits in this movie, but there’s a scene where he brings the mother rabbit and the next thing you know, he’s like, dissected it because he’s like, Oh, I need to learn how like innards work? And you’re like, Okay. And the movie goes on like that where Pete has a lot more agency than you think, especially in the relationship with Phil, 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.

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S3: Right? Well, that scene we mentioned in the barn, you know, 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 Where 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, again, once you see it, a second time all makes a lot of sense, but it’s it’s something that’s very hard to read. You honestly don’t know. You know, we’ve been set up to sort of fear Phil as the villain of the movie, and yet he starts to emerge in the middle, not as someone likable by any means, but as someone who has a really complicated subjectivity and a long back story to account for why he might have become the twisted individual that he is.

S4: Yeah, absolutely. And you don’t really know much about Pete’s sexuality, whereas with Phil at a certain point, it’s like very clear that he had the least heavily eroticized is what happened with what can I remember his name? Bronco, but Bronco Henry? Yeah, I mean, it’s just very clear that at the very least, he’s attracted said what the life means, what the dirt means, what the whole layer of the cowboy mystique. All of that is very erotic to him. At the very least, he’s into that. 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 the friend around because of Phil. And so you kind of you don’t really know what’s going on there, but it does feel like their relationship is building towards something erotic, at least.

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S3: Well, and also a little bit of a paternal situation. I mean, the scene where Phil takes Pete out, are they hunting? Is that why they go out riding a horse together? There’s a there’s a moment that they go off 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, right? And they go off riding together. And they have that moment where, as you said, something bad happens to a second rabbit, right? They wind up having to destroy this rabbit because they they accidentally broke its leg. And at that moment, after we after that very eerie, Campion esque close up of the rabbit’s blood dripping off stocks of grass, we have the two of them sitting around having this probably the most intimate. Human conversation that Phil has with anyone during the movie, right, in which I thought that he was taking sort of a fatherly or at least pretending to take a fatherly interest in Peter and to talk to him about his own father and how he died. And that’s the moment that we hear, for example, that his father hung himself and that Pete was the one who found the body. Right. So a lot of back story emerging there as well. And it seemed like at that point, maybe where the movie was going was that this friendship between them or whatever it was this, you know, budding fascination between the two of them was going to humanize Bronco Henry and send him down maybe a better path in life, but that is in fact not what takes place.

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S4: No, it is not. And I think we’ve neglected Rose because the movie neglects her a little bit. But she, Pete’s mom, is like increasingly increasingly losing the thread I’d like. She is just drinking more and more. She can’t really hide it anymore, and she’s just like, really coming undone. And the thing that we didn’t mention, but and 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 or Peter. And he says, You know, when my father died, all I ever wanted to do was protect my mother. And you know, 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 her, but when you start watching it, the second time, you’re like, Oh, OK. And so she’s really she’s really losing it. And crucially, some Native Americans come through the land once played by Adam Beach, which seems to be the person that Hollywood has on speed dial for roles like this. And he comes in and is asking about trading for some hides, and they say no, because I guess Phil likes to burn the hides for some reason. I guess it’s ritualistic for him. Maybe Dana. You remember more specifics about why he does that.

S3: They don’t really say why he does that. I think that the idea is simply that he doesn’t want anyone else to get them. I mean, I think it maybe goes with the Phil that we’ve seen so far. Who is this strangely, fiercely protective man who wants things done his way? Right? And even though the hides would otherwise go to waste, he would rather burn them than trade with with any Native Americans for them. And we only learn that very quickly. I actually think that that high development, which is really crucial to later turns in the movie, could have been a bit better developed. And I think you’re right that there’s a certain blurriness to it. That scene ends 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’s part.

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S4: Yeah, it sets up what we know is going to be a volcanic reaction when he returns. I think that might be when the two of them are on the trip that you just described Dana. If I’m remembering correctly,

S3: yeah, she’s using the time, they’re a way to do that. That’s right. And it’s when they come back from that ride that they discover she’s given the hides away,

S4: so he gets back. Obviously, he’s very pissed, but you know, you kind of expect him to go into the house and like, burn it down or something, and it doesn’t quite go that way. It seems I’m trying to remember the specifics of the scene, but it seems like he’s more just devastated that he can’t finish this rope that he’s been making. He’s making a rope for Peter, and that seems to be what the kind of talk him down. I think that George comes out the other brother and it’s like, Oh, well, sorry, basically. But then when Phil is about to lose hope, he 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 car and started cutting it up. And we don’t think much of it at that time because he’s prone to cutting up animals in this movie.

S3: Well, exactly. I think that’s a really good misdirect on on Jane Campion part, and I don’t know if that comes from the novel. I think that this is the story of this hews pretty closely to the Thomas Savage novel from 1967 that it’s based on. But because it’s visual and verbal, she can just drop a lot of clues and not explain that much. 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 it. He’s obsessed with dissection. So right, we’re not going to necessarily spin out some sort of murder plot from that. But perhaps we should. Yeah, because what precedes to happen and this is what I really didn’t get until both a conversation with Kodi Smit-McPhee, the actor who plays Pete and seeing the movie a second time is that, you know, he’s got this slow burn plan to kill the man who is tormenting his mother and possibly his other motivation for killing him, right is an anxiety provoked by this flirtation. In 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 in fact, what he has been doing and this word is dropped one time earlier in the movie too, if you rewatch it, is that he is looking for an animal that died of anthrax and much, much earlier. You heard some ranchers say a minor character, say something about, you know, 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 how does how does Phil get the cut on his hand? I don’t remember the cut on his hand is also crucial to him, you know, contracting the disease.

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S4: Didn’t that happen with the scene with the rabbit? Somehow?

S3: I’m not sure, but that’s when. That’s when he notices it. And 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 seen in the movie where the the the two men, Phil and Pete, find themselves back in the barn again. You know, this special hired has been delivered up to to fill, and you see him plunge his hand, his wounded hand into this water where the the the height is soaking. The first time I saw that, I thought nothing of it. If anything, it just sort of seemed like, why are we so concentrated on this hand in a bowl of water? But of course, once you figure out what’s going on with the hide, that is a really creepy moment to watch.

S4: Yes, it all happens quite quickly. Like that. There’s that scene where you think it’s about to bill to them like, you know, if they were ever going to consummate things, it kind of feels like that at the moment, it’s going to happen. And then instead, we to the next morning and Phil is very sick and doesn’t come down for breakfast. They go up to fun, kind, delirious. He really wants to deliver the rope he made, and instead George takes him to the doctor.

S3: And then a crazy thing is that that’s the last you see of Phil. I mean, that’s sort of what I mean about this movie always changing its focus and changing its perspective or protagonist. I mean, you would think that then what you would do is visit him in the hospital, right? See how sick he is here. People talk about it. But then I believe that that’s the last you ever see him, you know, until we’re at his funeral.

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S4: Yeah, I think that’s right. I mean, you see him being prepared for burial and a kind of macabre scene that goes along with everything that came before it and then George’s choosing a casket. And that’s that they’re all at his funeral shortly after that. If I’m not misremembering any plot points and the person who notably is not there is Peter. And then we get 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 you’re like, Oh, and then George says something like, Well, that’s weird, because I was really good about avoiding sick animals. And then you kind of realize what happened. You start at least that much clicks in your head. Probably for most viewers that, oh, this thing was in fact dead, but it’s not until they get back to the house. Rose and George and Rose looks better, like maybe she’s not drinking so much anymore. And there’s a sort of sweet moment where they actually seem to connect again for the 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 at the smile. That’s like giving me goose bumps as to even think about it. It’s like 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 he sort of with gloves on like these really scary looking gloves. He takes the robe and slowly puts it under the bed because he like knows what’s on the robe, and it’s quite obvious that he orchestrated the whole thing. And then, that’s it, baby, you get a dog, and that’s that’s the end of the movie.

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S3: Well, he also, he reads, 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? Yes. From the Psalms, that is. I remember it by heart now because this is very haunting. Deliver my soul from the sword, my darling from the power of the dog. Right? And so you see that he’s in fact been a been cooking up this plan all along and that he sees himself as a kind of angel of vengeance, you know, which loops back again to that opening voiceover in him kind of becoming the protector of his mother? It’s I mean, it’s you have to say this for Jeffrey. It’s an ending. Andy, and I admire that if this movie does not trail off vaguely, even if 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 on a true twist on a chilling, as you say, a chilling smile and chilling gesture of a sliding the poisoned rope under the bed and just to me, was just a very satisfying buckle at the end of this movie. And I appreciate that compactness about it. The fact that you know all the choices that it makes are very deliberate choices.

S4: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I admire this movie too. And as I said, I’m like a huge, huge Jane Campion fan and I I hard pressed to denigrate any of her movies too much. I think people, I even though I did not enjoy watching this the first time, I so absolutely, of all the movies that came out this year, recommend that people see it in a theater if they can, because it is a very powerful and beautiful experience. 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 just a little bit.

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S3: No, I sure 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, that the mere fact that it clicks into place at the end is very satisfying to me. But 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 like, you know, that’s great filmmaking. This movie creates a puzzle that’s hard to figure out, but there is a solution to the puzzle, and I can name other movies that, you know, just sort of deliberately torment the viewer with ambiguity without ever making choices themselves as to what they mean. And I don’t think this movie would fall in that category.

S4: Oh, not at all. I mean, watching it again, the ending is like, incredibly satisfying, and it’s I think it is going to go down to one or. A great climaxes of recent years, just because it is so smartly constructed up into that point, even if I didn’t get it at all. In watching it again, I see now that it is and is just such a powerful punch at the end, really a great, really well performed final scene there by Kodi Smit-McPhee, who also is racing toward the award season. I would say, Hey, I

S3: was going to ask about that because I do feel like, especially on the performance level, this movie is going to be a big splash in awards season. It would be really exciting if Jane Campion were more featured in the reward response. She did win best director just now at the New York Film Critics Circle, which sort of kicks off awards season but doesn’t necessarily predict it. But Jane Campion aside, because I have the feeling she’s sort of too good for the Oscars and will not be appreciated by them. What do you think of these performances, not only in terms of awards, but just what really stuck with you and haunted you about them?

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S4: Well, I think his performance in particular because there are so many layers to it and that he.

S3: Wait, wait, who’s he?

S4: Oh, sorry, sorry. I’m talking about Kodi Smit-McPhee, who plays Pete the boy viewing it a second time. That is a really, really tricky needle to thread because you’re trying to play this sort of like bottled up, scared, lanky boy. But also you had to reveal reveals over time these like shades of toughness and like, slightly scary, unnerving confidence. And then you finally get that final scene where the whole thing kind of wraps up, and it is just a performance that contains many, many layers. I, to me, I think it’s a more impressive one than the Benedict Cumberbatch performance as film. I imagine that will be controversial because he does a lot of acting in this movie. He’s like a classically trained theater guy. I’m not trying to say that he can’t handle a role like this, even though he’s becoming known. Not really for that type. He’s become more. You know, he’s like a quirky Marvel superhero and quirky Sherlock, etc. So he’s playing against what has become his most famous type in this movie. I think he’s pretty good. I think he has a lot of scenes really well. I think he was miscast. I think, you know, he really made me believe the ferocity of the character. But I just I never quite bought him physically as the cowboy type he was trying to portray. So I just had a little bit of a hard time getting there all the way with that one. Kirsten Dunst, you know, I’m an enormous fan of hers. I wish that she had more speaking lines for two thirds of the movie, but she does a lot of work with her face. It’s obviously a really immensely emotive performance where you really see what Phil is doing to her and how he is destroying her, even if you don’t get a ton of time with her to process it. And as I said, I don’t think that the George, the other brother, because there was so much screen being gobbled up by Phil, had a whole lot to do. But Jesse Plemons is, you know, I think, increasingly quite beloved character actor. And there’s a

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S3: reason. Oh, and it’s interesting to see Plemons intense together, since they’re a couple in real life, right? To see them playing this couple that doesn’t really belong together. It doesn’t seem to know each other. You know, I believe this is the first time, at least, that I’ve seen the two of them have performed together in a movie, and certainly as a married couple, I had one thing to say about Kirsten Dunst performance and also about Rose’s character as written, which is that even though, you know, on the surface, I would say this movie is more concerned with queerness and with the relationship among the men, and that it is true that that her character drops out to some degree. And unfortunately, so I think because of the power of her performance and the layers that she puts into it, there’s a feminist subtext in this movie as well, you know, I mean, all of those close ups of her face as she’s being kind of tormented over her piano playing and, you know, and interacting with the kitchen staff. We haven’t really talked about that. But you know, these scenes where she goes and talks to the housekeepers in the kitchen, there really is a sense. I think that that rose is someone that has been really thwarted by the society. She’s grown up and we’re in the 1920s. I don’t think we ever said that, but it feels much earlier than the 1920s because they’re in such a remote frontier space, right? I mean, this really plays like a Western that would be set in the 19th century, and I got such a sense of of her character rose as this person who was utterly constricted by her circumstances. And, you know, a piano playing is only a small part of it, of the idea of her not being able to become the person that she was meant to be. Right. Her son is able to to study and pursue interests. And, you know, the men around her, her living with so much more freedom than she is.

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S4: Yeah, I think that’s really shrewd. I mean, I think part of what it is with her character is that she seems to buckle at the slightest pressure from any direction. And I never really felt that I got to the center of it, unless it perhaps is a metaphor for the times. You’re totally right that it seems like it takes place way sooner. It’s like startling when they start driving a car around, because even though it says 1925, it does feel like so much longer ago than that, right?

S3: Because of the way they’re living. And I think this is part of the point is that, you know, they’re living the way frontiersman would have lived 100 years before.

S4: I think you’re right to read the character that way and watching it a second time. You can see a little bit more of her earlier in the in the instance, she seemed like she might be more self-possessed, but it doesn’t end up going that way.

S3: It’s much easier to be kind of self flattering as an actor if you’re playing someone who has a steely core beneath their apparent vulnerability. But she really is playing a weak willed woman, you know who’s being manipulated. And and that’s just that’s a lot to get across with just your face in just a very few scene and particularly that scene where her son comes to see her in her room and she’s kind of remembering. Her childhood, remember talking about getting gold stars from her teacher? Oh, yeah, she’s she’s kind of drunk, but she also seems like she’s really kind of losing touch with reality. It’s just it’s a really heartbreaking scene to watch.

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S4: Yeah, you have to imagine that that’s the scene where Pete is like, OK, time for the anthrax hide.

S3: See, I feel like the more you talk. Are you talking yourself into liking this movie any better because you’ve barely said anything negative about it?

S4: Well, I just I have to tell you that when I came out of it for the first time, I felt almost like I was being punked. It’s like one of those. I don’t know if you ever have that experience where you like, 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’s butt? And that’s how I felt the first time I saw this. But yeah, now having read a lot about it and watched it again, the craftsmanship is just sort of overwhelming, and it’s hard to dislike it completely. But I stand by that. It’s a very unpleasant watch. Yeah, and not only in the not only in the obvious

S3: way, right? And I mean, you could say that that protagonist less ness that I was talking about is a weakness of the movie in some ways, and it may it may keep you at an emotional distance. Right. You’re not exactly sure who to trust, who to identify with, and ultimately, you’re. That makes you watch the story from this from on high, you know, rather than from a really imbedded place in the character’s psychology.

S4: I think that’s totally right. Thank you. This is exactly what I wanted to talk about it with you. You helped unlock you helped unlock the problems of the movie, but also make me feel better about not liking it and also like it. Even more like this is a perfect turnaround.

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S3: At the very least, you are not warning people away from it, right? You think if people are intrigued, they should go for watching it?

S4: Oh, I think people should absolutely watch it. If nothing else, it is certainly one of the most challenging and sort of interesting movies that I’ve seen in many months, and there’s no reason not to do it. Maybe if you’re a real animal lover, beware. But otherwise there’s this has a lot to offer, and I think anyone who loves Jane Campion, even the tough movies of hers are really worth diving into.

S3: All right, Jeffrey. Well, thank you for coming in. This is the most interesting spoiler I’ve recorded in a while because because I haven’t had many people come in and say, I really want to talk about this movie because I didn’t like it. And that brings that brings a fresh perspective and also makes me rethink what I did like about it. So thank you.

S4: Thank you very much.

S3: All right. Well, that does it for our slate spoiler special on power of the dog, please. If you like this show, subscribe to it in the Slate Spoiler special podcast feed. And also you can rate and reviews in the Apple podcast or wherever you get your podcasts that helps other people discover the show. And as always, if you have any suggestions for movies or TV shows we should spoil in the future. You can share it at Spoilers at Slate.com. Our producer today was Cleo Levin. Our managing producer is Asha Saluja. For Jeffrey Bloomer, I’m Dana Stevens. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll talk to you soon.