Review: The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage

the power of the dog coverThe Power of the Dog [1967] – ★★★★

“…there was no doubt in Phil’s mind of the end of [the] pursuit. The dog would have its prey. Phil had only to raise his eyes to the hill to smell the dog’s breath [Thomas Savage, 1967: 76].

This book is by an underappreciated American author Thomas Savage, and Jane Campion (The Piano (1993)), one of my favourite film directors, is currently shooting an adaptation of it. The story takes place in a small town in Montana in the 1920s where two brothers’ interests clash when one of them unexpectedly decides to marry a widow with a son. Raw, uncanny and psychological, The Power of the Dog is probably known for its intense character study of Phil Burbank, whose brooding and quietly menacing presence haunts the pages of this book, making it virtually unforgettable. Thomas Savage undoubtedly drew from his own previous experience of working as a ranch hand to produce a different kind of a western, whose deep sensitivity to the characters and their dynamics is nicely offset by the “harsh” authenticity of the language. 

The Guardian said that The Power of the Dog had “echoes of East of Eden and Brokeback Mountain”, and in terms of the locality, the relationship between the two brothers and one repressed emotion, the book certainly has these echoes. In The Power of the Dog, the Burbanks are important ranchers in the area, and Phil and George are two brothers who, in their thirty-five-plus years have always lived and worked together, not to mention sleeping in the same room. However, the brothers could not have been more different from each other. Phil is slender, with an “engaged mind” [Savage, 1967: 9], a natural leader, who does not like showing any weakness. He respects experience and hard-work, and is brilliant with both his hands and his mind. There is a sense of danger about his character, but does he have some well-protected and hidden soft spot too? George, on the other hand, is “a stocky one” [Savage, 1967: 13], an easy going fellow who “had no hobbies, no lively interests”. The strange dynamics between the brothers are the highlight of the book, and there emerges a curious study of simplicity, meekness and modesty (George) vs. complexity, power and assertiveness (Phil).

The two brothers may also symbolically represent two contrasting periods of time – one already in the past, and another in the present, just emerging into the future. However, paradoxically, and as we will see further on, their symbolic roles become reversed because, at first, we only see the appearances that the brothers project. Phil appears to be an intolerant realist who clings to the past, tradition and masculine roles (he feels the weight of the years, the passage of time and is unable to prevent it), while George may pass for a dreamer who looks to the future and longs for the feminine, while being grounded in the present time – he is the one who is not averse to the idea of modern machinery, such as automobiles. Phil is subtler and more difficult to understand: “Phil lived – watching, noting, figuring – as the rest of us see and forget” [Savage, 1967: 67]; “Phil knew that the thing unsaid is more potent than the thing said”; “he was a great deal more than a human being, or a great deal less” [Savage, 1967: 209].

When George brings home his new wife Rose, the widow of Dr Gordon, and her clever, but sensitive son Peter, Phil becomes dissatisfied with George’s new lifestyle and his wife’s simple ways, unleashing his campaign of psychological oppression on the new pair. The disaster is brewing just under the surface as Phil’s “brilliance” and displayed masculinity is contrasted with Rose and her introverted son’s feminine comforts and pastimes. Music becomes one of the battlefields. The studied mannerism of Rose at the piano is no match for Phil’s natural talent and prowess on his banjo: “Phil could not read a note nor did he have to; he played by ear, could play anything, having heard it once, quickly recognised the composer’s intent and pattern” [1967: 124]. Peter and Rose’s flower arrangement is another mystery for Phil. Flower arrangement could be seen as nature subdued by a man’s hand, but Phil’s opinion on this is of a “true” and coarser kind, including shooting animals for lunch and castrating cattle. The two different ways to live collide, with jealousy and resentment growing in the Burbanks household. Will Rose and her son escape the atmosphere of oppression and the hidden plans of Phil?

Thomas Savage’s language fits perfectly into the description of the life on a ranch, and sometimes it seems that the narrative addresses the reader, while at other times, we get glimpses of what is going on in the heads of each of the characters – Phil, George, Peter or Rose’s: “in other words, he [George] knew all there was to know about love, that…it’s the delight of being in the presence of the loved one” [1967: 85]; “but what was art ([Rose] defended herself) if not the arrangement of trivia?” [1967: 133].

In all fairness and despite all its great points, The Power of the Dog is also a book whose drama is handled strangely. There may be deeper and more symbolic elements behind the surface, but the main drama is still diluted by the author introducing a number of hardly relevant episodes and other characters. The expected drama may also be too slow in coming and then, when we realise what is happening, the conclusion comes too soon. The result is that the story overall loses some of its momentum and the ending becomes not as effective as it might have been.

The Power of the Dog is a novel that deserves more recognition that it has received so far. Whether one views this book as a story of two brothers where one of them tries to regain control over their lives or a tale of outsiders trying to fit into their new community, it will leave an impression. The character of Phil, in particular, looms larger than life within the pages of the book, hijacking the narrative and instilling into this tale of a quiet American town an unforgettable sense of unease.

20 thoughts on “Review: The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage

  1. I have never heard of Thomas Savage but as soon as you said Jane Campion you had my interest and my ears pricked up because she is a genius, ergo so must Savage also be a genius and I’m now looking for this book online. I love the sound of the setting in the ranch in Montana, it will be very atmospheric and wild I am certain, both book and film. Can’t wait for this one

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    1. I hope you like the book and let’s hope the film will be great. I am really excited that Jane Campion will direct an adaptation too. I can clearly see why she was attracted to this book in the first place because I see some (not many) but clear parallels with The Piano – as in that movie, in The Power of the Dog, there is this oppressive male presence, psychological elements and even piano-playing by one of the lead female heroines which becomes the pivotal point of the discord.

      I hope Campion will go for The Piano feel for her new movie and there will be plenty of subtlety and beauty, rather than take her previous film The Portrait of a Lady as a book-to-film inspiration, which somewhat lacked nuance. The worrying thing for me is that Benedict Cumberbatch is cast as Phil in The Power of the Dog – precisely the person I imagined to be the exact opposite of Phil in my mind 🙂 but I trust that Campion will do a great job.

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      1. This keeps sounding better and better this book I am very hyped to read it, also to see the film, but much later. I was a bit dubious about Cumberbatch as a dark character until I saw him in this as Frankenstein in the National Theatre production on Youtube, he was just incredible. I always thought he couldn’t pull it off but he actually does dark very well. I am intrigued about how he will play Phil

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        1. That’s great to hear that Cumberbatch can play dark characters well, that gives me hope and I think I need to see that Frankenstein – sounds very good. I guess I am most concerned about the looks of Phil too – I mean, in the novel – so that there is a contrast with his brother – Phil is presented as a very handsome and masculine-looking man. Benedict Cumberbatch? Hmm. Well. Perhaps. I mean, I am sure there will be many surprises for me and I am open to and believe in actors’ transformations and my initial opinions changed 🙂

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          1. I just had a look…it was a video up for a limited time…damn! but hopefully they will have it on their channel again, they have a lot of other ones, great production values, and incredible acting….no fancy CGI just amazing acting…😉 I agree Cumberbatch is a bit weird looking not really suited to a handsome role like that lol

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  2. Interesting book. Always curious to understand – what is the main thing in a person at a long distance? Is it possible to determine who is right and who is not? Or everyone still has their own truth.

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