While the The Power Of The Dog (2021) has been praised for its period setting, and performances of both leading and supporting actors, there’s also plenty of confusion regarding the end of the film. So, in this article, we’re looking at what exactly happened with Phil Burbank and what’s the symbolism of The Power Of The Dog (2021). Obviously, spoilers below!
Let me start with a bit of appreciation for my fellow film buff Michał Kaczoń who helped me get to the bottom of what the ending of The Power Of The Dog (2021) means. The film’s been quite a hard nut to crack, but well, there goes the power of two minds instead of one. Without further ado, here’s what we ended up with.
What is The Power Of The Dog (2021) about?
Firstly, let’s recap the films plot.
American frontier, 1925. Two brothers – Phil and George Burbank – work as ranchers, yet none of them settled down and got married. Phil is the beguiling one; George’s more compassionate.
One day, while on their way to the market, the brothers stop at a restaurant, where Phil humiliates Pete, the son of the establishment’s owner, widow Rose. Disgruntled with his brother’s callous behavior, George tries to comfort the boy and his mother. A spark immediately lights the fire, and it’s not long before George and Rose get married, to the out-in-the-open disdain of Phil who doesn’t accept the new additions to the family.
Together with Pete, Rose moves in to live with George and Phil. Despite the sacred bond, Phil continues to despise the boy, and openly mocks him, together with the pack of ranchers who stand firmly by his side. The simmering conflict becomes to weigh heavily on the widow, who eventually begins to find solace in alcohol.
The story leads to the reveal that Phil’s a deeply suppressed homosexual, who sometimes drifts away reminiscing his mentor – and most likely his lover – Henry. Although scrupulously covered-up, the true nature of Phil is patiently studied by Pete, who plots against the vicious rancher. The roots for his revenge derive from the growing tension between Phil and Rose, and the fact that Rose starts knocking herself unconscious, spiraling down towards self-destruction. Watching his mother suffer pushes Pete to the edge.
Jane Campion hints at the revenge idea that grows in Pete’s head via multiple scenes and pieces of dialogue.
Pete firstly tries to pick the interest of Phil, but other than the numerous ways in which he beats up on the boy. In that context, the key scene is when Burbank’s henchmen ask Phil about the mountains seen from the ranch where the brothers live. It’s only revealed in a conversation between Phil and Pete that the rancher sees a shape of a dog’s head in the rocky formation.
Apparently, Pete sees it too.
Through such a simple moment, Campion’s story indicates that the two men share similar sense of perception of the world. Phil’s deeply sensitive, although the macho attitude would suggest otherwise.
The third act of The Power Of The Dog (2021) delves into the way in which Pete tries to soften Phil, and get close to him, pretending to want to man up.
How Phil Burbank contracts anthrax in the ending of The Power Of The Dog (2021)?
In the final scene of the film, Phil wakes up sick, and George decides to take him to town and seek help. Campion cuts to Peter, who nervously circles around inside the four walls of his room. Next thing we know, the family mourns Phil, and the movie concludes with George kissing Rose, with Peter cherishing that little moment of affection.
Although the finale might seem convoluted at first (well, it did to me), the truth is pretty simple – Peter Gordon killed Phil Burbank by getting him to contract anthrax.
Remember when Pete asked about wolves in the mountainside? Well, the boy had everything planned. Firstly, he wanted to pick up riding lessons for this was not only a way to get closer to Phil, but also travel alone to find a dead carcass and hides. In a scene where Pete finds a cow torn apart by wolves, he intentionally carves out pieces of the hide in gloves, doing it carefully as not to contract anthrax himself.
In the climax scene of The Power Of The Dog (2021), when Pete and Phil are in the barn, Phil washes the hides, but with bare hands. Naturally, Mr. Burbank couldn’t predict his demise, for the boy’s gesture to offer the skins seemed like another move to reduce the distance between him and Phil.
Also, note that Phil’s hand was cut earlier, which made the infection much easier.
Why the title then – The Power Of The Dog (2021)?
So, we finally arrive at the last burning question. Does any of the characters constitute the reason for the story’s title? What does it mean anyways?
When we first meet Peter Gordon, he’s withdrawn, scared and entirely reliable on his mother. Not only does he work in her little establishment, but he also vacates his own room to let the guests stay there. No matter what happens – even when his mother begins to booze up – Peter stays with her and wants to come to her aid. In that sense, he’s the most loyal person she has.
How does it relate to the title?
Well, the title indicates that although dogs are loyal to their owners, and they can take a beating, there’s a limit to their patience too. In that sense, the symbolism of the dog that bites is how the bond between Phil and Pete turns out to be. Phil is the bad owner who walks all over the boy and his mother. In the end, Pete patiently waits for his chance to bite and show off his true power, getting rid of the man who poisons his life. At the same time, he remains loyal to the only person who took good care of him.