The Science Behind ‘Power Of The Dog’

7:50 minutes

logo that says "science goes to the movies"When you think about science in films, you might think about space missions, disaster flicks, or techie thrillers, but probably not westerns. But Jane Campion’s film The Power of the Dog, a period drama about ranchers in Montana, turns on an interesting science twist. It is also widely considered a frontrunner to win an Oscar or three—it’s been nominated in several categories, including Best Picture.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Phil, an unlikeable rancher, whose world is disrupted when his brother marries a recent widow (played by Kirsten Dunst) and brings her son Peter (played by Kodi Smit-McPhee) into the home. The film doesn’t have a lot of dialogue. It’s a slow-boiling story about depression, psychological distress, alcoholism, masculinity, and sexuality. But (SPOILER ALERT!) it is also a story about anthrax, and the way in which Peter leads Phil to infect himself with the deadly agricultural disease by providing him with a hide from a downed cow. 

Sonia Epstein, executive editor and associate curator of science and film at the Museum of the Moving Image, based in New York City, joins John Dankosky to discuss the film and the medical mystery embedded in a landscape of mountains, cattle, and simmering emotions. 

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Segment Guests

Sonia Epstein

Sonia Epstein is the Curator of Science and Technology at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York City. She’s also the Executive Editor of Sloan Science & Film at Museum.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky. In just a few minutes, we’ll be launching our book club for this late winter, Get Ready For a Trip to Mars. Now when you think about science in books, and especially films, you probably think about space missions or techie thrillers, not westerns. But Jane Campion’s film The Power of the Dog, a period drama about ranchers in Montana, turns on an interesting science twist. Oh, and it’s also the front-runner for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars.

Joining me now to help unravel the science in this story is Sonia Epstein, executive editor and Associate Curator of Science and Film at the Museum of the Moving Image based in New York City. Welcome back to Science Friday, Sonia.

SONIA EPSTEIN: Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Now I do want to give a heads up to our listeners here. We will be talking about some key plot points. So if you haven’t yet seen The Power of the Dog, let this serve as your spoiler alert. So for folks who aren’t up on all their films of this year, maybe you can give us a nutshell summary of what the story is about, Sonia.

SONIA EPSTEIN: Yeah, sure. I mean, the first thing to know is this is adapted from a book, so I want to give credit where credit is due. Tom Savage wrote this book in 1967. This is a sort of play on the Western genre, I guess. It’s set in Montana in 1925 and follows a ranching family, two brothers, whose lives are sort of disrupted when one of them marries a former widow and her son comes to visit.

This is also, I wouldn’t say a love story exactly, but it is a story of a gay man, I guess I should say two gay men, and a lot of repressed tensions and power plays.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah, and that’s really been a lot of the focus about this film, this son of slow boiling story. But we’re going to talk about a different take on this film, and it really is an interesting twist.

SONIA EPSTEIN: Yeah. I’m kind of thrilled. I’m someone who watches films and always has an eye out or an ear out for anything science related. And so, in the first five minutes of this film, anthrax is mentioned and I just lasered in on this. And I remember finishing it and I was like, wait a minute, nobody mentioned this to me as a science film. But there is a way that it is a sort of medical mystery, if you will. And so I’m very excited we get to talk about that.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah, there’s some foreshadowing of anthrax right at the very start of the film. And then later on in the film, it’s mentioned again.

PETER: Do many of the calves die from wolves?

PHIL: There’s always a few get tore up or hamstrung or die of anthrax. Call it Black Plague. You talk like a Victrola record, you know that?

PETER: CODY: No. I didn’t know.

PHIL: Yeah, well, you do.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Now those are the main characters there, Benedict Cumberbatch, who you might not recognize because he’s usually not playing Montana ranchers, and Peter, who is played by Cody Smit-McPhee. He’s the younger boy. They’re talking there about why some of the calves die, why some of the cows die. And it’s the second time we actually hear about anthrax in this film.

SONIA EPSTEIN: Yeah, anthrax is a bacteria. It’s commonly found in the soil. It was actually the first, I believe, disease that was pinned to a specific microbial agent as sort of its causative agent. It was identified in 1877. But in the 1920s, it was actually a pretty common agricultural disease. In the opening scene of the film, you see from the distance a cow with its sort of legs in the air.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah, and Phil, the rancher played by Benedict Cumberbatch, at that point says, “Steer clear. You don’t want to touch the cow with anthrax.” So it was pretty well known by the 1920s in Montana amongst the ranching community that anthrax was something that could kill your herd.

SONIA EPSTEIN: Certainly. There were herds dying off. There were methods of containment by that point, even 10 years after it was discovered. You might notice Cody Smit-McPhee, who sort of manages to weaponize, for lack of a better term, this disease. You’ll notice that whenever he comes into contact with it he wears gloves.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah, and Peter, this character knows this because he’s studying medicine. He’s always got his nose in books. At one point in the movie he’s dissecting a rabbit. So he understands these things.

And the scene that Sonia is talking about here, he goes and gets some hide from an infected cow and he seemingly knowingly gives it to Phil, the bully played by Benedict Cumberbatch, to work with to try to make a rope.

PETER: Phil, I’ve got rawhide to finish the rope.

PHIL: You got it. What are you doing with Rawhide?

PETER: I cut some up. I wanted to be like you. Please, take what I’ve got.

JOHN DANKOSKY: So, I have to say when I saw the movie, Sonia, I didn’t immediately make this connection. I didn’t understand as I was watching it that by giving Phil this potentially infected rawhide that he may be signing a death sentence for this guy.

SONIA EPSTEIN: Yeah, it’s very subtly done. In the shot that precedes what we just heard, you see the rawhide hanging and you see that it has these black spots on it, and that was a marker of anthrax. And so, for me, I guess, that was a sort of indication, in addition to the fact that when he went into the mountains he wore gloves, that something was afoot.

But then you also see the scene with Benedict Cumberbatch dealing with this rawhide and his big gash in his hand just kind of like fermenting in the water with this rawhide. And something’s going on.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah, thinking back on this, it’s pretty chilling. Of course, we know in recent memory, anthrax can be weaponized, not in this particular way. Many listeners will remember the anthrax mailings that happened after 9-11. It killed and injured several people around the country when it was sent through the mail. So we have actually seen anthrax weaponized in recent memory, Sonia.

SONIA EPSTEIN: Yeah, that was terrifying. And I actually I listened to your– I know that you helped to cover that, John.

JOHN DANKOSKY: Yeah. It was a very scary story. It killed a woman who just opened up her mail and came in contact with some anthrax spores.

So this year we saw the first of the movies that are really influenced by the fact that we’re living in a pandemic right now. And I guess I’m wondering what you think this movie tells us about our relationship with a mysterious disease that we probably don’t think about very much.

SONIA EPSTEIN: Yeah, I mean, it’s also a zoonotic disease, which COVID is as well. So I read some statistic where over 50% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic in nature. And I think as we all know, with climate change and global movements, population growth, we are living in closer proximity to animals of all kinds.

And that’s not something necessarily to be scared of, but it’s something to be conscious of how we are changing the environment around us, and the environments that we’re newly coming into, and that we are part of an Ecology. I think, even though this film is fictional, it’s set in Montana in the 1920s, I do think that there is something to take away and that is relevant to our current circumstances.

JOHN DANKOSKY: The movie is The Power of the Dog, and it’s nominated for a Best Picture Oscar amongst many other awards that it’s up for. Sonia Epstein is executive editor and Associate Curator of Science and Film at the Museum of the Moving Image, which is based in New York City. Sonia, great to talk with you. Thanks so much for being with us.


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About Charles Bergquist

As Science Friday’s director and senior producer, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.

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John Dankosky works with the radio team to create our weekly show, and is helping to build our State of Science Reporting Network. He’s also been a long-time guest host on Science Friday. He and his wife have three cats, thousands of bees, and a yoga studio in the sleepy Northwest hills of Connecticut. 

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