The Power of the Dog

Every day the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is mentioned in secular newspapers, magazines, and religious publications. Sometimes secular and religious publications provide information about the content of the Bible. Other times, people cite the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament in order to prove a point or to illustrate the message they are trying to communicate.

Sometimes the information these sources provide about the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is true; however, sometimes the information is false. Sometimes, the information they provide completely distorts what the Bible says; other times the information reveals how little people know about the Old Testament.

From time to time I will blog on some of the articles where the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is mentioned. Whenever I mention an article in a publication, I am not endorsing the content or the information found in the article. My only goal is to examine how the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament was used in that article.

The example today comes from a recent movie on Netflix and how the Old Testament was used in the movie and interpreted by the media.

Warning

“The Power of the Dog” is a movie that was shown in theaters in November and it is now streaming on Netflix. It is a slow movie which finds its climax in the last 15 minutes of the movie.

WARNING. The post will reveal and explain the last 15 minutes of the movie. It is a big spoiler. If you have not seen the movie, I recommend that you stop reading this post now and go see the movie. After you have seen The Power of the Dog, come back and read my reaction to the movie.

LAST WARNING. If you do not like to be told what a movie is about, do not read this post. If you do, I can guarantee you that I may ruin the viewing of the movie for you.

An Overview of the Movie

The Power of the Dog is a movie based on the book by Thomas Savage titled The Power of the Dog. The book was published in 1967 and the story is largely based on the life of the author who was a gay man who worked on a ranch in Montana.

The movie is focused on four individuals. Phil Burbank (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) and George Burbank (played by Jesse Plemons) are ranchers in Montana. Rose Gordon (played by Kirsten Dunst) is the owner of an inn and her son Peter (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) who helps his mother in the kitchen.

The movie begins when Phil and George come to the inn with his men to eat dinner after they drive a herd of cattle to town. Peter likes to make paper flowers to decorate the dinner table. When Phil sits at the table, he makes fun of Peter and uses one of the paper flowers to light his cigarette. Phil’s attitude toward Peter makes his mother cry in the kitchen and George tries to comfort her.

After Peter goes to school, where he is studying to become a medical doctor, George tries to help Rose in the kitchen. Eventually they fall in love, get married, and move to George’s ranch.

Phil is bitter about George’s marriage to Rose because he lost the close relationship he enjoyed with his single bother. Now that he is married, he dedicates most of his time to Rose. After Rose moves to the ranch, Phil torments Rose and uses every opportunity to make her life miserable. Phil’s cruelty drives Rose to drink and eventually, Rose becomes an alcoholic.

When Peter returns home from school during his summer vacation, he notes how sick his mother is and realizes that Phil is the problem. Phil is still rude to Peter and tries to make Peter’s life at the ranch as hard as possible.

One day Peter discovers a magazine that belonged to Phil with photos of nude men. At that time Peter also saw Phil bathing naked in the river. When Phil saw Peter, he goes after him and Peter runs away from him.

Once Phil’s secret is exposed, Phil’s attitude toward Peter changes and they become friends. Peter’s mother becomes very upset that the two of them have become friends. To express his friendship to Peter, Phil decides to make a rope for Peter by braiding rawhide. Phil also teaches Peter how to ride a horse.

One day Peter asks Phil about the death of calves in the ranch. Phil telss Peter that some calves are killed by wolves and some calves die from anthrax, an infectious disease. Later, when Peter is riding his horse, he sees a calf which had died from anthrax. Peter removes the dead calf’s hide using protective gloves.

After this incident, Phil and Peter go out together to repair a fence. While they are working on the fence, they see a rabbit hiding under some wood. Trying to catch the rabbit, Phil hurts himself by getting a deep gash on his hand.

Phil continues to make the rope for Peter with the hides he had saved from dead cows. Without Phil’s knowledge, Rose traded his hides for a pair of gloves. Phil was very angry at Rose because now he did not have enough hides to finish the rope he was making for Peter.

Peter decided to give Phil the rawhide he had taken from the dead calf. Phil took the hide and worked all night to finish the rope. In order to use the hide to make the rope, Phil washed Peter’s rawhide. He soaked the hide with his wounded hand. Phil did not know that the hide was taken from a cow that had died from anthrax.

After working all night, in the morning, Phil does not come down from his room for breakfast. George goes to Phil’s room and finds that his brother is very sick. His wound is infected and Phil has a high fever.

George prepared to take Phil to the doctor, but Phil wants to give the rope to Peter before he leaves. Unable to find Peter, Phil gives the rope to George and both leave in the car to see the doctor. From his window, Peter sees Phil and George depart to go to see the doctor.

The next scene in the movie, shows that Phil has died. The coroner tells George that Phil has died from anthrax poisoning. Peter does not go to Phil’s funeral. He stays home. When his mother returns home from the funeral, Peter sees from the window in his room his mother and George kissing, as if to indicate that happiness has returned to their marriage.

The Power of the Dog

The title of the movie, “The Power of the Dog” is enigmatic. Many dogs appear in the movie, but none of them have anything to do with the title of the movie. Phil shows Peter a chain of mountains near the ranch that when looked at carefully, has the shape of a dog, but the mountain has nothing to do with the title of the movie.

The meaning of the movie’s title is not revealed until Peter returns to his room after he sees his mother and George kissing. Peter returns to his room, sits on his bed and open his Bible and reads Psalm 22:20:

“Deliver my soul from the sword, my life from the power of the dog.”

After he reads this verse, Peter smiles. It is then when the viewer realizes that Peter deliberately allowed Phil to use the contaminated hide, which was the cause of Phil’s death. By using the anthrax and by causing Phil’s death, Peter got rid of the man who made his mother’s life a living hell.

Interpreting Psalm 22

As one watches the movie and as one watches Peter read Psalm 22:20, the question arises, what is “the power of the dog?” One writer, Annie Proulx, said that the dog refers “to the canine made from shadows that Bronco Henry trained Phil to see in the mountains, an animal Peter immediately recognizes when Phil quizzes him.”

Lindsay Kusiak in her review of the movie, “The Power Of The Dog Title Meaning & Final Bible Verse Explained,” says that “While the verse seen in the film may seem straightforward, the ‘power’ referenced in Psalms 22:20 remains largely mysterious.”

Kusiak interprets “the power of the dog” in psychological terms. She wrote, “This leads to the conclusion that the power referred to in The Power of the Dog is one of psychological force, rather than physical. Phil’s power comes from demeaning people. . . . It is Phil’s ability to prey on others’ inadequacies and insecurities—thus making them question their value and feel like ‘worms’—that is the dog’s ‘power’ from The Power of the Dog.”

This psychological interpretation does not reflect the intent of the psalmist. To understand the correct meaning of “the power of the dog” one must understand how dogs are portrayed in the Old Testament. Most references to dogs in the Old Testament are used to show contempt toward a person or to insult an individual. Goliath said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks?” (1 Samuel 17:43). When Saul tried to kill David, David said to Saul, “Whom are you pursuing? A dead dog?” (1 Samuel 24:14).

Psalm 22 has been classified as a Messianic psalm because of its frequent use in the New Testament. However, Psalm 22 is the agonizing cry of an individual who feels himself abandoned by God, whose pain and suffering are caused by his enemies who torment him.

The psalmist compares his enemies with wild animals who want to destroy him. His enemies are bulls who encircle him. His enemies are like ferocious, roaring lions with their opened mouths trying to devour him (Psalm 22:12–13). His enemies are a band of evildoers who are all around him, they are like dogs who have bitten his hands and feet (Psalm 22:16).

The way the young Peter uses Psalm 22:20 after the death of Phil, clearly shows that Phil is the dog, the evildoer who was tormenting his mother. Phil had tormented Rose as often as he could to the point of driving her to drink and to self-destruction.

The Power of the Dog is a good movie notwithstanding the surprising end. One must follow the development of the different scenes in the movie to come to the correct understanding of the movie’s ending. From a human perspective, the killing of Phil was immoral. However, Peter loved his mother and he believed that the only way to help her was to deliver his mother from “the power of the dog.”

NOTE:

My book Divine Violence and the Character of God will be published in January 2022. The book deals with God’s violent acts in the Old Testament in light of God’s character as a gracious and merciful God. You can order a pre-publication copy of the book at 40% discount. If you want to order the book at 40% discount, send an email to drmariottini@gmail.com and put Divine Violence in the subject line and I will send you information on how to order a pre-publication copy of the book at 40% discount. This discount will be available only on pre-publication orders. Once the book is published, the 40% discount will no longer be available.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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6 Responses to The Power of the Dog

  1. Glenn Hefley says:

    Good post. I was attracted to it by the title. A friend of mine, Don Winslow, also published a book called ‘Power of the Dog’… but it’s much different than this story. Saw that right off with the cowboy hats. His is about the War on Drugs and the Cartel violence. Good book. You might like it – we were also under the impression that the ‘power of the dog’ was the terror of the pack brings to your door — not psychology… (?? really, psychologic power??) hrm. Thanks for the read.

    Like

    • Glenn,

      I am glad you enjoyed the post. It is interesting that many people saw the movie but they could not understand how Psalm 22 related to the movie. I am not familiar with your friend’s book. The problem of drugs in the USA is tragic. When I was a pastor, I had to deal with many people who were addicts to drugs. It is a very sad situation.

      I hope you have a wonderful new year with many blessings and happiness.

      Claude Mariottini

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Vivian b says:

    Well I hope they portrayed the mother and son being cowardly. The mother owned an inn. If living in the ranch was that bad then they should’ve lived at the inn.

    Of course people kill out of cowardice but I hope the movie portrayed it as such. Cause I don’t believe the Bible quote was used in the proper context. The mother had an easy problem to fix.

    Like

    • Vivian,

      The solution to the mother’s problem was not easy to solve. She moved from the inn to the ranch because she loved her husband. The brother of the husband was the enemy of the mother. The biblical text was quoted out of context, however, the author of the book was trying to show that the man tormenting the woman was the enemy. This is what the dog in Psalm 22 represents; the dog was the enemy of the psalmist.

      Thank you for visiting my blog.

      Claude Mariottini

      Like

  3. David says:

    If one believes Psalms 22 is a cry for help then one should try to understand the Jewish faith first. Christ was quoting verse while on the cross experiencing the physical torture of crucifition. He was delivering his own prophecy as written by David. He wanted to make clear that He was the Messah, so long awaited for by the Jews. He had fuifilled that which was fortold.

    Like

    • David,

      Psalm 22 is a psalm of lament in which the psalmist appeals to God for help. The end of the psalm reflects that the psalmist was confident that God would answer his prayer. Jesus used the lament of the psalmist to express his pain and suffering on the cross. The movie, “The Power of the Dog” has a different emphasis and has noting to do with messianic interpretation.

      Claude Mariottini

      Like

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