On a lonely barn wall in The Power of the Dog, there hangs a saddle with the name “Bronco Henry” etched into it. Though unimposing on its own, the artifact ends up being the thread that ties the film together. Indeed, for our reclusive and thorny cattle-farmer protagonist, Phil Burbank (Benedict Cumberbatch), a saddle isn’t just a saddle. Rather, it’s a reminder of the dogma of rugged masculinity instilled in him by his predecessor, the mythic bronco himself. It represents a set of values Phil attempts to uphold in a world where this kind of manliness is rapidly becoming unnecessary and even passé as the excess and extravagance of the Roaring ‘20s take over—and one he desperately attempts to bolster in order to keep the cowboy lifestyle alive after he’s gone.
Given this, the way characters interact with the props like the bronco’s saddle ends up being more telling than the way they interact with one another. Phil cradles the saddle as he, shrouded in weathered cowboy attire covered in dirt, quietly realizes that he has been outnumbered by his brother George (Jesse Plemons), George’s new wife Rose (Kirsten Dunst), her delicate son Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), and their modern lifestyle which sees no need for traditional men like him. At another point, George notices that the saddle’s gone, eying its fixed spot on the wall with dismay, knowing that its absence means that his brother is continuing on his dead-end, doomed path into the past. To put the nail in the coffin, Peter mounts the saddle with serene, quiet calculation at the end of the film, knowing that he has, at last, outwitted his predecessor—and his generation has finally taken the reins.
Given his attachment to physical emblems of masculinity, it only makes sense that Phil’s impressions of other men are largely based around their physical appearance, and that he is extra attentive to them as a result of shifting social attitudes. Given this, The Power of the Dog ensures in turn that the audience is hyper-aware of seemingly innocuous objects, the way they are treated, and the customs and weight that they carry. When Phil first meets Peter, the latter is a waiter at a tavern he and his crew are stopping by for dinner. Phil promptly mocks Peter for elegantly folding a handkerchief over his forearm, then proceeds to taunt him for his lisp. To Phil, the deliberateness of the cloth on the young boy’s arm indicates an attention to aesthetics that can only be characterized as extravagant, and, by extension, feminine.
Later, a second handkerchief comes into play. It belonged to Bronco Henry, and is introduced when, in a secluded wooded area, Phil pulls it out and masturbates with it. But this handkerchief looks different from Peter’s: It’s aged, creased and spoiled with decades of dirt and grease. This is to be expected, as, for the cowboy, the handkerchief was purely utilitarian. It was worn around the neck to protect from dirt and distemperate weather. For Phil, the implicit masculinity in a dirty, unkempt piece of material is enough to inspire eroticism. Peter’s generation, on the other hand, swept up in the heart of the Roaring ‘20s, has the luxury of donning the handkerchief for the sake of appearance, defending its usage with something as trivial as it being used to catch the drips off of a bottle of wine. Indeed, perhaps the cloth is utilitarian, but only within the parameters of a job that, to a cowboy, appears largely superfluous.
But the handkerchief isn’t the only object that Phil ridicules Peter for. The first thing we learn about Peter is that he has a knack for fashioning paper flowers. Rose decorates the tavern’s tables with Peter’s flowers, and when Phil discovers that the flowers were manufactured by a man, he sets them on fire. But this is not solely meant as another mockery of the young boy for his perceived femininity. For Phil, the paper flowers represent three things: A rejection of masculinity, the elimination of utilitarianism and a contempt for nature. That Peter is able to spend hour upon hour forming flower petals with scissors implies that he has the leisure to do things for fun, as opposed to spending his days castrating bulls and skinning animals under the beating sun.
Flowers also epitomize nature in poetry and literature, so to manufacture a flower through the hand of man as opposed to the hand of God, in Phil’s eyes, dishonors the cowboy’s alliance with nature. For the cowboy, a plant is either food or a symbol of the glorious unkempt wilderness, which in its disorder remains exactly the way God has created it. For the modern man, on the other hand, it is a decoration that can be contrived.
As Phil and Peter’s relationship becomes more complex and Phil attempts to put his disdain aside in an effort to become a mentor figure a la Bronco Henry, their respective relationships with nature become more and more fleshed out. After moving into the Burbank household, Peter catches a rabbit and keeps it in his room. Though at first it seems he is inclined to keep it as a pet, he slices the creature open and examines its insides, drawing diagrams to study as he pursues a career as a surgeon. Phil also has an encounter with a rabbit. While building a fence, he notices the small mammal under a shelter of logs, and removes them one by one in a tense Jenga-like game of chicken, waiting to see how long it takes for the creature to flee. Peter’s relationship with the rabbit is solely scientific: An effort to service his studies as a surgeon, a profession which, to the cowboy, would be seen as stepping into the shoes of God. Phil’s, on the other hand, is to remind himself of his stature on the food chain and assert his dominance over a meeker creature. Although both men end up exacting cruelty on the rabbit, Peter does so on a quest for knowledge and Phil in the pursuit of power.
But Peter doesn’t turn out to be the meek creature Phil thought he was. In fact, Peter uses his scientific knowledge—the very knowledge that the older generation might suspect was frivolous and unnatural—to outsmart Phil. Another physical thread that weaves through The Power of the Dog is a rope Phil fashions for Peter out of rawhide. Peter takes vigilant note of the rope-making process, heeding, in particular, the fact that the hide must be soaked in water before the rope can be completed. And so Peter directs his scientific musings toward something more elaborate than drawing an anatomical roadmap of a rabbit. On a lone excursion, he finds an animal corpse poisoned with anthrax, and gives it to Phil to work with because he knows that the poison will enter an open wound on his hand and kill him, and thus protect Rose from his bullying. It is inevitable, too, that Phil will make this rope, as, for him, it acts as a physical torch to pass down from his own generation to the next.
But even in death, Phil still manages to pass the rope, and all of the primitive brutality it represents, on to his protégé. In the final scene, Peter tucks the memento under his bed. In a shot focused on the rope, we see Peter’s feet as he wanders toward the window. He is wearing shining brogues, which recalls an earlier conversation between him and Phil where the latter tells him that he should switch to cowboy boots. But Peter refuses to do so, just as he refuses to use the rabbit to situate himself on the food chain, or the handkerchief to venture out into the desert. Where Phil chooses to honor nature and convention, Peter subverts them, and thus eradicates the notion that objects are best left in their purest forms, and that a man’s role in the world should be equally rigid and stoic—any desire for transformation repressed. As Peter strolls away from the rope with conviction, it’s apparent that he won’t be swapping his shoes for boots anytime soon, nor will he be trading a surgery galley for the wild, wild West.
Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.