Campion: The Power of the Dog (2021)
Benedict Cumberbatch in The Power of the Dog (2021) | Courtesy of Venice International Film Festival

‘The Power of the Dog’ Messages the Urgent Need for Civic Education

Thomas Savage’s novel and Jane Campion’s film adaptation of The Power of the Dog depict the danger in Americans’ distrust of civic institutions.

The Power of the Dog
Jane Campion
Netflix
17 November 2021 (US)
The Power of the Dog
Thomas Savage
Little, Brown (1st ed.)
1967 (US)

“Lord, how Phil did like to get people’s goats!” Thomas Savage writes in his 1967 novel, The Power of the Dog. Phil Burbank was able to “get people’s goats” because of his unique situation: a rare intelligence, educated at “a California University”, living the life of a cattle rancher in small-town Montana. Phil had a singular, innate ability to think abstractly. He “lived—watching, noting, figuring—as the rest of us see and forget”. His mental acumen, coupled with a general talent in anything he put his mind to, however, set him at odds with his community. The people of Beech, Montana in 1925 did not, and perhaps could not, understand him. 

Phil reacts to his situation by psychologically tormenting those around him—and reveling in it. Benedict Cumberbatch, who plays Phil in Jane Campion’s 2021 film has said that Phil “becomes toxic” because he “has a need to protect things in the world and hate on the world potentially through that defensive protectiveness before it hates on him.” Phil both feels and is different. Add to his natural intelligence Phil’s closeted homosexuality, which further alienates him from the community. The loss of a lover, a much older rancher – Bronco Henry – whom Phil knew in his youth, haunts him as an adult. The result is the villain we see on both the page and in the film, who drives sister-in-law Rose Burbank (Kirsten Dunst) to the brink of insanity. 

If scholar Siobhan McEvoy-Levy is correct in her assessment that analyzing popular stories “can help us understand, and perhaps even reconsider, the political ideologies and collective emotions of particular eras”, then we may fruitfully see in The Power of the Dog part of a larger trend in critically acclaimed films: American’s distrust of institutions. Like Bong Joon Ho‘s Parasite (2019) and Chloé Zhao‘s Nomadland (2020), which each won the Academy Award for Best Picture, Jane Campion‘s The Power of the Dog, nominated for the same award in 2022, implicitly takes aim at higher education. Education, as depicted in the story, is an unguided, unfeeling transfer of knowledge. The educated here, encumbered with facts and ideas, are left directionless. The result is at best a burden and at worst, fatal. 

The rush of criticism and distrust of higher education in film is tied to what scholars term a civic education crisis. “Our constitutional democracy is ailing,” argues Danielle Allen and Paul Carrese, “And one major reason for our trouble is that for several generations we have failed to provide civic education.” Allen and Carrese are not alone in their assessment, or in the cry for a kind of “civic rebirth” in the wake of increasing social unrest in America. This unrest is underpinned by what scholar Rebecca Winthrop cites as a lack of civic preparation; students need a space to “develop and practice the knowledge, beliefs, and behaviors needed to participate in civic life,” but are hard-pressed to find one. The Power of the Dog shows us the dangers of a bad civic education. 

Mistrust of Civic Education

What is a bad civic education? Civic education, broadly construed, is an education in how to be a good citizen. Drawing from French Philosopher Montesquieu, as I have elsewhere, a bad education in a republican society is that which does not instill republican virtue. Republican “[v]irtue, [in Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws], “consists in a love of equality, properly understood as a love of ordered equality with one’s fellow citizens” (I.3.3). A love for ordered equality encourages citizens to participate in the community without attempting to dominate each other. This love of equality facilitates a love of the community, an understanding of one’s duty to care for their fellow citizens. Since this republican virtue entails a renunciation of the self, the ability to think abstractly and sympathize with other citizens is critical (I.4.5). 

Moderation, Paul Carrese suggests, is the operative term in Montesquieu’s understanding of the civic and religious virtues needed to sustain a healthy republican society. Self-moderation will prevent citizens from tending toward disordered equality, which is either an extreme equality in all things or an extreme disdain for equality of any kind. “Men cannot render [society] equal services,” Montesquieu writes, “but they should equally render it services” (I.5.3). Virtues that encourage moderation, therefore, are essential to learning good citizenship.

This sort of education, however, is only partly accomplished in the classroom. Families, Montesquieu argues, must first encourage and support children in their development to obtain knowledge of both fact and virtue (I.4.5). Second, education itself must expose students not only to different facts but also ways to interpret and use them well. This too Alexis de Tocqueville concludes in Democracy in America; “instruction that enlightens the mind” must be inseparable from “education that regulates the mores” (I.2.9). Third, the community must support and sustain these habits in adults. Through the characters of Phil Burbank, Peter Gordon (Kodie Smit-McPhee), and Peter’s father, Johnny Gordon (not portrayed in the film), The Power of the Dog highlights what the lack of these three tentpoles works in the individual and, ultimately, in the community itself.  

The Values of the Educated in Beech, Montana

Phil Burbank is not the only gifted character in this story. Peter, the son of Rose and Johnny Gordon, is equally intelligent. Following in his father’s footsteps, Peter attended medical school to satiate his natural curiosity and ability. Peter is also, like Phil, an outcast in a community of ranchers who value sameness of appearance and especially of thought. Phil himself, in his own desire to appear the strongest, torments Peter by first burning the paper flowers Peter created as table settings for Rose and later with demeaning nicknames, like “Miss Nancy”. The rest of the community joins Phil, especially in disparaging the suicide of Peter’s father, a local doctor. 

Johnny Gordon attended medical school, but according to the book, lacked the drive to succeed. After marrying Rose, he took his talents westward, to Beech where he set up shop. Beech, however, provided nothing to stimulate him, nothing to encourage a learned man. Johnny Gordon soon turned to drinking, which Phil noticed and publicly humiliated him for. 

The final altercation between Phil and Johnny, omitted from the film, takes place at the saloon in Beech, with Johnny, drunk, attempting to impress those present with his knowledge of Greek and horticulture. Phil mocks him while correcting John’s Greek. Phil proceeds to quote Ovid in Latin, calling Johnny a “horse’s ass” as well as his “sissy of a son”. Phil’s taunting provokes Johnny to violence. Peter is disparaged “[b]ecause he reads. Because he thinks,” laments Johnny, before lunging. Phil beats him and rips his shirt for his efforts. The humiliation pushes Johnny even further into depression. He takes his own life a few days later. 

Peter’s own intelligence in a hostile environment does not depress him. Instead, Peter adopts a dispassionate, scientific personality, distancing himself from those around him, even his mother. He frequently stares past people when speaking with them, prompting Rose to comment that his mind is often elsewhere. While in Beech, Peter studies continuously and explores the countryside, looking for answers to the way things are. After Rose weds George Burbank, the younger, kinder brother of Phil, Peter turns his scientific attention to people, specifically Phil, wanting to understand why he tortures people. 

As Phil torments Rose and Peter, the latter studies Phil, learning his abilities and weaknesses with cold, calculating intent. Their relationship shifts once Phil realizes that Peter also sees the “astonishing figure of a running dog” in the topography of “the hill that rose up before the ranch-house”. Where Phil begins to see a kindred spirit – someone else who can see what others cannot – Peter sees a point of vulnerability in Phil that he might use to exploit. 

While Phil, as Annie Proulx shares in her Afterward for the novel, is “plotting a homosexual involvement with the boy”, Peter is plotting to murder Phil in revenge for torturing his mother into alcoholism. Peter employs his knowledge of diseases, in this case, Anthrax, and his knowledge of Phil – who refuses to wear workmens’ gloves out of some desire to appear strong – to murder Phil by giving him a diseased cowhide to work with. Phil contracts Anthrax while making a rope to give to Peter and dies quickly thereafter. 

Cynicism Toward Education

The Power of the Dog is distinctly cynical about education. Phil is a sadist, Johnny is a depressed alcoholic, and Peter is a sociopath. Education is to each a burden and in the case of Phil and Peter, a tool used to dominate their fellow townsfolk. These latter two, the smartest characters in the story, are the most dangerous because their intelligence is not tempered by virtue or compassion. 

Other than Rose, who supports Peter in his schooling but who cannot understand it well, the story contains only the façade of family support for education. Phil and George’s parents, the Old Gent and Old Lady respectively, based on what little information about them the book gives us, sent their children to university because that’s what wealthy people do. They are described as posers who did not themselves understand how to run a cattle ranch but had others do hard work for them. They value opulence over authenticity. 

Phil’s education, while not described explicitly, included classic liberal arts stables like Greek and Latin. The culture at his California University, however, was vapid – addressing a group of fraternity heads who attempted to recruit Phil on campus, he remarked that “you’ve asked me here for my money. Why else would you want me, gentlemen? You don’t even know if I’ve a brain in my head.” People at the university did not value education as much as they did status and power. Phil hated that realization and relished turning down the fakes he found in the halls of higher learning. 

The community around Beech itself, however, is the most overtly hostile threat to education. The townspeople neither understand nor particularly value education – they enjoy new technologies, like automobiles, but lack any discernable appreciation for intellectual stimulation. In classic western fashion, the commoner is the most virtuous. “How can we be humiliated if we’re humble, as Christ tells?” Rose consoles Johnny, his pride repeatedly wounded by the community in Beech. George and Rose Burbank are uneducated and relatively unintelligent, but otherwise good-hearted and loving. We see this in George’s tender care for Rose and Peter and in Rose’s desire to help others, as she does in helping an Indian trader who, against Phil’s wishes, wants to show his son the mountains where their ancestors lived (now Burbank lands).

Savage’s story, then, is perhaps not as radical a Western as some, like author Michelle Nijhuis claim. The same triumph of simple living and weariness of institutions endemic to the genre flows through the veins of this story. If anything, The Power of the Dog is even more distrustful of education than other Westerns. To wit, both viewers and readers are left with ambiguous portraits of Peter, the last one standing, who may well kill again should anyone trouble him or his mother in the future, now that he has the taste for it. 

After Phil’s death, Peter, privately elated, ponders the verse from Psalm 22: “Deliver my soul from the sword, my darling from the power of the dog.” Rose was delivered “thanks to his father’s sacrifice, and to the sacrifice he himself had found it possible to make from a knowledge got from his father’s big black books. The dog was dead.” At the end of the story, Peter begins to think of himself as a deliverer. His mind, his sacrifice saved his mother from Phil’s torment. Like his father had sacrificed himself and “played God” by ending a life, so had he.

Eschewing the promise of institutions civilizing the West, The Power of the Dog displays an appreciation of common, simple virtue. This community founded upon simple virtue, however, is ever at the whim of those with ability and cunning. “It is through popular culture,” argues professor Jason Dittmer, “that we decide who we are, who we want to be, and how we want people to understand us.” Campion’s film forces us to wrestle with institutions of higher learning in our own time – does college embitter and depress? Does obtaining a college education make you happy? Are we destined to become a society of Phils, Johnnys, and Peters? 

The Power of the Dog can be seen as both a reaction to and a reflection of America’s education crisis. If what Tocqueville describes as township institutions – families, churches, media, and governments – do not value and support civic education, and if education itself lacks heart, then education will be reduced to a symbol of status and not a means to learn the tools necessary to live a good life. As professor Dan Mahoney, discussing civic education, once quipped: “rights don’t actually tell us how to live a good life.” Knowing that you have rights is not the same as knowing how to exercise them for both your good and the good of your community. 


Works Cited

Allen, Danielle and Carrese, Paul. “Opinion: Our democracy is ailing. Civics education has to be part of the cure.” The Washington Post. 2 March 2021.

de Tocqueville, Alexis. Democracy in America. via Project Gutenberg. 1835.

Dittmer, Jason. Popular Culture, Geopolitics, and Identity. 2nd ed. Rowman & Littlefield. March 2019.

Gross, Terry. “Benedict Cumberbatch digs into toxic masculinity in ‘The Power of the Dog'”. Fresh Air. NPR. 4 March 2022.

Mahoney, Dan. “The Case for Liberal Ideas and Institutions”. School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership. via Youtube. 25 February 2022.

McEvoy-Levy, Siobhan. Peace and Resistance in Youth Cultures: Reading the Politics of Peacebuilding from Harry Potter to The Hunger Games. Palgrave MacMillan. 2018.

Montesquieu. The Spirit of the Laws. Edited by Anne M. Cohler, Basia C. Miller, and
Harold S. Stone. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1989.

Nijhuis, Michelle. “How The Power of the Dog Eviscerates the Myths of the Old Western”. LitHub. 3 December 2021.

Sabo, Mike. “A Roadmap for Improving American Civic Education”. Real Clear Wire. 28 April 2021.

Savage, Thomas. The Power of the Dog. New York: Back Bay Books. 1967. 

Tocqueville. Democracy in America. Edited and Translated by Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2000. 

Winthrop, Rebecca. “The need for civic education in 21st-century schools”. Policy 2020 Brookings. 4 June 2020.

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