Canine coup strikes Hungary in animalistic revenge flick
Directed by Kornél Mundruczó
Cast: Zsófia Psotta, Sándor Zsótér, Lili Horváth, Luke & Body
The easiest way to describe the film White God is to say it’s Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, but with dogs instead of birds. Unfortunately, that’s also one of the less accurate ways to describe it. As co-written and directed by Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó, White God is as much a grim social fable as it is a nature-gone-wild disaster flick.
White God isn’t the first horror film to employ dogs as objects of terror. There’s 1977’s The Pack. There’s that 1983 adaptation of Cujo, of course. There’s Monster Dog with Alice Cooper. And there’s the perfect 1978 double-feature of Devil Dog: The Hound of Hell and Dracula’s Dog (aka Zoltan: Hound of Dracula). However, even if you include bears (Grizzly, Prophecy), fish (Jaws, Piranha), crocodiles (Lake Placid, Rogue), pigs (Razorback, Pig Hunt) and mollusks (It Came from Beneath the Sea, Slugs), White God is probably the first animal-based horror film to milk a Frankenstein level of sympathy for the creature at the center of it all.
Before the opening credits even roll, we witness a young girl pedaling her bicycle madly through the empty streets of Budapest. Nipping at her heels (literally) is a teeming pack of blood-mad stray dogs. Is this just a dream? If not, what has led to this feral confrontation? Snapping back to the beginning, following the title sequence, we meet our two main protagonists: 12-year-old Lili (excellent newcomer Zsófia Psotta) and her beloved canine companion, Hagen. Seems that Lili’s mom is jetting off to Australia to teach at a university for three months. In the company of her new boyfriend, mom remands Lili to the custody of her sad sack ex-husband (Sándor Zsótér). The few things we know about Lili’s dad are he’s recently divorced, has gone from being a college professor to working as a meat inspector and hates dogs (as he loudly announces when Lili steps out of the car).
White God is a mad mash-up of genres. There’s some blood and gore on display, but the film doesn’t exert itself milking the “horror” angle. Instead, it’s a slow-building thriller that takes a goodly amount of time to get to its central premise of doggie rebellion.
Stuck in a cramped apartment with her estranged father for the summer, Lili tries to make the best of it. But dad’s unresolved anger issues and an onerous city tax on dogs who are not “purebred” lead to an ugly incident. Dad’s unwilling to take care of the mutt, and Lili’s unwilling to send him to the animal shelter. So, despite his daughter’s protestations, dad abandons Hagen on the side of the road.
Suddenly, the narrative splits in two, spending as much time with poor Hagen as with heartbroken Lili. While Lili fights with her father, misbehaves in her youth symphony group and searches the city for her lost pet, our main canine sets out on an incredible journey that mixes equal parts Lassie Come Home and Apocalypse Now. Hagen hooks up with a pack of stray dogs, runs from animal control, falls in with a homeless man and eventually ends up in the clutches of a dogfighting ring. It is in this final indignity that the film solidifies its dark vision. Pumped full of steroids and trained to fight, Hagen goes from loyal family pet to rage-filled killing machine.
Sent into the ring to battle another canine, Hagen experiences his big, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!” moment. He busts free from his shackles, gathers an army of like-minded mongrels and leads his canine corps on a mission of revenge against society.
As you can probably guess by now, White God is a mad mash-up of genres. There’s some blood and gore on display, but the film doesn’t exert itself milking the “horror” angle. Instead, it’s a slow-building thriller that takes a goodly amount of time to get to its central premise of doggie rebellion. Pushing past the two-hour mark as it does, the film could have benefited from a hurry-up offense. But the measured pace gives viewers plenty of time to build up sympathy for our four-legged antihero. Admittedly, the script features plenty of “character development” that would seem cheesy and rather shorthand if applied to actual humans. But our voiceless main character (played expertly by twin canine actors Luke and Body) is so believable in his emotions and his actions that the whole film works.
Mundruczó, with help from director of photography Marcell Rev, lenses White God in a gorgeous but tricky manner. Relying on some tight cutting, some dog’s-eye-camerawork and a damn good animal trainer, Mundruczó creates a fantastical adventure on a microscopic budget. A certain suspension of disbelief is still required to swallow the film’s heavy anthropomorphization of animals. (Not to mention the inexplicable nastiness every adult here displays for both kids and dogs.) But some breathtaking action and an indelible climax wash away a host of concerns.
At the end of the day, White God works best as a thick allegory of modern-day racial, sexual and economic relationships: The abused will rise up against the abusers, so watch out. Substitute any oppressed minority for dogs, and you’ll see what this film is not-so-subtly hinting at. Call it horror. Call it a thriller. Call it a girl-and-her-dog fantasy. Call it social satire with a significant bite.