Spoilers Ahead… Beware!
It was the English screenwriter Angus MacPhail who first coined the term MacGuffin in the early 1930s while working with Alfred Hitchcock to describe objects that help to drive the plot of a story but are insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in themselves.
Jane Campion’s latest film The Power of the Dog, about two Montana ranch owning brothers who’s lives change irrevocably when one of them marries, is a wonderful example of how objects become extensions of characters and act as signposts that prefigure plot points later in the story. But uniquely in this case, objects are used in service of lead characters to further their own aims and objectives – whether to torment, save or destroy.
Set in 1925, against a backdrop of change, It’s clear the two Baxter brothers represent the shifting of times towards a more cultured existence which was exerting pressure on the dominant American pioneer spirit of the 1800s. Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) is the rugged but brutish cowboy who defines himself by the dirt under his fingernails, George (Jesse Plemons) the quiet romantic aspiring to high society. George marries widowed innkeeper Rose (Kirsten Dunst), who’s delicate yet brilliant son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is an affront to Phil’s ideas of masculinity while Rose poses a threat to the status quo at the ranch.
Early scenes before George and Rose marry show Peter’s skill in crafting beautiful paper flowers for his mother and a deft mastery of the hula hoop (not actually invented until 1957!), while Phil can play the banjo with the same level of confidence as skinning cattle or braiding a rope. But the skills these men possess and the seemingly innocuous objects in their orbit begin to exert a narrative of their own that reveals deeper meaning both for the characters and their motivations.
The Piano and The Banjo
Once Rose moves in and before Peter’s arrival at the house, George has an expensive Mason & Hamlin baby grand piano delivered in preparation for an important dinner party, but the piano simply casts Rose adrift in a sea of self-doubt as she’s thrust into a world in which she doesn’t seem to belong. Before the party, while Rose practices a tune on the piano in the cavernous front room, Phil begins to echo her notes upstairs on his banjo – using his own modest instrument to mock her amateurish attempts and undermine her already crumbling confidence. The tune they play, and which now represents Rose’s failure, is later whistled by Phil as he haunts her slow descent into alcoholism.
When Peter finally arrives at the ranch for the summer and discovers the strung out husk his mother has become, he determines to make things right. The extent to which Peter will go to save his mother are obscured however as the complex relationship between he and Phil plays out and more secrets are revealed about both of their pasts.
The Saddle and the Handkerchief
It’s Phil’s childhood mentor Bronco Henry, who’s ghost looms large and is embodied in a saddle hung up in the barn underneath a makeshift shrine to the brothers’ beloved ‘friend’. The care with which Phil attends to the saddle – along with a ‘BH’ monogrammed handkerchief kept down Phil’s trousers – suggests something more than just friendship, and it’s this secret that ultimately turns Phil’s early tormenting of Peter into a loving guidance as he sees in the young man something of himself at a young age.
But while Rose is an obstacle to be removed – Peter is the wide-eyed ‘sissy’ to both mould and have as companion to replace Phil’s own estranged brother George. When it seems a pact of sorts has been forged by the two men, they head off into the mountains on a retreat. As they build a fence, Phil sees, then chases a rabbit under some logs and engages Peter in a cruel game of cat and mouse to see how long it will take for the rabbit to scarper.
Here – as in an earlier scene where Phil is seen hastily castrating a bull – it’s clear that Phil is intent on demonstrating his mastery over nature, whereas Peter – training to be a surgeon – is more interested in playing God. Earlier in the film we see him making a trap (another key theme) and catching his own rabbit that we assume is a gifted pet for his ailing mother, but soon learn will be killed and dissected to further his understanding of anatomy. It’s the first time we see Peter at work, and it shifts our perception of him from a boy preoccupied with childish amusements to a young man with focus and determination.
Although Phil’s preoccupations make him adept at herding cattle and tanning hides, Peter is a looming shadow of progress; the onset of a calculated and cold scientific worldview that in 1925 was carving its way through America and sweeping away the old guard.
And it’s this calculated ideology that underlies the masterful and unexpected ending to the film, as we learn that Peter has been quietly enacting a stealthy killing game all along. First luring Phil into a trap through appealing to his vanity and repressed sexual urges and then finishing him off in a cleverly fiendish manner that very few who’ve watched the film will have seen coming.
A banjo, a saddle, two rabbits and a handkerchief may have all figured so far, but a rope will be the ultimate object of torture and triumph, leaving us with the most lasting impression of an exacted revenge.
It’s Peter’s attentiveness, observation and medical knowledge that lead to his giving cut hide from a cow felled by anthrax to Phil for braiding a rope – a rope incidentally being made as a gift for Peter as part of his manly re-education.
The anthrax from the poisoned strips of hide will enter Phil’s bloodstream through an open wound on his hand – a wound inflicted by a trapped rabbit’s bite and left to fester due to Phil’s steadfast refusal to ever wash.
The End is the Beginning
Peter has been watching the wolf all along, and we are reminded of his words in voiceover at the start of the film when, after the death of his father he wishes only for Rose’s happiness: ‘For what kind of man would I be if I didn’t help my mother… if I didn’t save her?’.
The film’s final scene is of Peter first looking down from his window at the sight of George and Rose’s loving embrace under the moonlight, before turning around, smiling and disappearing out of shot, while Jonny Greenwood’s unsettling piano melody fades us all to black.
‘For what kind of man would I be if I didn’t help my mother…
…if I didn’t save her?’.
The Power of the Dog is now available to stream on Netflix