Spoiler Warning: The following interview covers the key details of Netflix’s “The Power of the Dog,” including how it ends. If you haven’t seen the movie, come back when you have and see our review, director Jane Campion’s profile, and co-star Kirsten Dunst interview.
Five minutes after “The Power of the Dog” we meet Peter (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a fragile-looking young man who sits alone in his room and meticulously crafting paper flowers that are set up as table decorations in his restaurant. Mother Rose (Kirsten Dunst ) owns.
Later that night, those flowers will turn to ashes, burned by the vicious rancher Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch), the first in a series of threats against Peter and his mother, a threat that drives Jane Campion’s chamber music western to almost unbearable tension – which Smit-McPhee felt very strongly when reading the script for the first time.
“I felt sorry for Peter all the time,” said Smit-McPhee, 25, during a recent conversation in a Santa Monica restaurant. “I’ve had so many judgments about how he behaved. At some point these judgments solidified and I just had the feeling that his doom was imminent. “
And then we understand that we may not have seen Peter clearly.
Smit-McPhee is right with us. When he got to the end of his first run through the script, he flipped back a few pages to make sure he hadn’t missed anything.
“I haven’t missed anything,” says the passionate Australian actor with a smile.
After you’ve seen The Power of the Dog – and if you haven’t, bookmark this page for later reading – you may be wondering if you missed something, too. Smit-McPhee, a newly crowned supporting actor from the New York Film Critics Circle, is here to answer all of your questions, from why Peter’s shoe choice was made to the film’s amazing ending.
When does Peter decide to murder Phil?
It’s ambiguous so I’m just here … but I think it’s when he sees him burn the flowers.
It goes all the way back to the flowers? I thought it was what started his mother falling into alcoholism thanks to Phil’s cruelty.
Secure. But Phil’s been on Peter’s radar since that first night. It’s a nice metaphor. Phil’s burning roses, which he wants to do to Peter’s mother, destroy them. But I think Peter is also upset that Phil almost made him cry on that first encounter. Little did he know that he could be hurt so easily.
Yes, Peter goes outside and we see him spinning the hula hoop, which I initially saw as a coping mechanism, like the fidget spinners so popular a few years ago.
It looks like he’s trying to ease his fear. It feels like he’s lost control. But it’s just the opposite. He manages. He is absolutely in control.
Just as he runs his fingers over the teeth of the comb, which we see doing in times of apparent stress. The first impression is that he’s trying to cope with it … or annoy his mother. Or both!
You know, the one about the comb calmed me down when I played it. But I think it’s a way for Peter to deal with his thoughts and emotions. It is a physical manifestation of the way his mind works, triggering various thoughts and plans. Same with the hula hoop. Go back and check it out and I don’t think you will ever see someone spin a hula hoop with that much anger.
OK. So you think Peter always intended to kill Phil, and when he learns the calves are dying of anthrax, that tidbit sparked the idea of putting the plan into action?
Cutting the anthrax from the cow, much like killing the rabbit in his room, partially fulfills his ambition to become a doctor. But Peter is an improviser. He goes with the flow. And when he sees that Phil has stolen his hand, he comes up with the idea of contaminating the rawhide and infecting him.
Peter is constantly evaluating and waiting for the perfect moment to strike. I think that’s in the nature of many animals, but for Peter I chose the fox to assimilate his character. They’re so light on your feet and they’re pretty and they look delicate and cute. And yet, you can tiptoe to a hole and jump straight into it and you are at the end.
Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil in “The Power of the Dog”.
(Kirsty Griffin / Netflix)
Which brings us to the scene in the barn where Peter infects Phil with the anthrax. It’s such a delicate dance between these two men and I dare say …
Phil did you feel sorry? I’ll be with you in a moment Phil’s walls, the walls that have been frozen for so long, are gone and his mask is removed. We learn the truth about his love for Bronco Henry. And yes, he may have been well-groomed, but I think what he had with Bronco Henry was real. He was in love. And he had to hide that from the world. While Peter … Phil envies Peter because he can be completely himself. It’s interesting how they switch roles. Peter becomes the darker, crueler figure and Phil the more innocent child with a lot of trauma. When Peter holds the contaminated rope with his gloves, I think of Phil. And it hurts.
Do you think Peter ever thought of abandoning his plan and sparing Phil?
No. The same thing happened with the rabbit he killed so he could dissect it. He’ll do what he has to do. And although this could possibly be the first interaction with intimacy or love for another person for Peter, he is ready to sacrifice it for his mother.
You mention that Phil envies Peter because he’s so confident, it reminded me of Peter’s white shoes. You look so out of place on the ranch … which is a little misguided, isn’t it?
Yes indeed! The shoes symbolize Peter’s confidence and unwavering will in the face of the judgment. He likes these shoes and he doesn’t care if you don’t. And I love that after he kills Phil he puts away his cowboy boots and hat and puts his tennis shoes back on. He immediately jumps back into what he is and what he always was.
Who do you think Peter will be in 10 years?
Many of us have this question. Maybe Norman Bates in “Psycho”?
He runs a hotel with Rose’s skeleton in the rocking chair upstairs?
I think he has just become a recognized doctor. Very good at his job. And I find it even more fascinating that this is just going to be one of the stories of his past and nobody gets to know about it. He goes out and does exactly what he wanted, which is to be a good doctor like his father was. So much creepier. Killing Phil was just something he had to do, and now he lives on. Probably still wearing those white tennis shoes.