Brave, tantalizing, deliriously unclassifiable, and hackle-raising in its intensity, White God is a poignant Hungarian revenge fantasy, a rousing creature-feature suspense story, and a feat of practical filmmaking. Dickensian and dystopian, it’s a triumphantly idiosyncratic, technically accomplished live-action fable in a dog-eat-dog world, a social conscience movie with real cinematic bite.
Thirteen-year-old Lili is abandoned by her mother for a 3-month teaching position overseas and left on her father’s doorstep with her adored (and adorable) mixed-breed, Hagen. She is devastated when her father proves unwilling to pay a harsh “mongrel” fine imposed by the government and he dumps Hagen onto the street. Hagen attracts a large pack of followers who start a seemingly organized uprising against their human oppressors. Lili sets out to find her dog at all costs.
Writer-director Kornél Mundruczó (Johanna, Tender Son: The Frankenstein Project) goes big with allegory, violence, incident, sentiment, and riveting results. Creative smoke-and-mirrors make once-cute dogs seem like menacing terrors. Mundruczó works the setup like a burlesque fan dancer, teasing out the reveal bit by bit, and employs a “shaggy dog” approach, his camera itchy – as if sniffing – darting, nudging, and sneaking ever so closer in scenes where the dogs move closer to war with mankind.
Specifically, the splicing of the drug-riddled club montage, the staging of the metropolitan dog rampage, and the composition of the final trumpet call (seen on the poster) are exquisite. The climax is not only wonderfully exciting but flawlessly handled. The choreography of the scenes in which the dogs take to the streets is breathtaking.
White God is basically Homeward Bound: The Incredibly Harrowing Journey, a fantasia of canine madness that resembles a horror-thriller based on something by Stephen King or James Herbert. It teems with vitality and energy whenever the dogs return to centre stage. The cast of untrained hounds is so personable that even when they tear out throats, you still want to take them home. Imagine an R-rated Lassie by way of Spartacus, or the beautiful puppy of The Plague Dogs and the altruistic, compassionate Au hasard Balthazar. It’s also a studied tribute to Hitchcock’s The Birds.
Mundruczó skillfully weaves prison-escape and retribution tropes into a mythic, emotional, and visceral experience that poses discomfiting moral questions about how people treat animals and how people treat people. White God is a bizarre film that veers between gritty realism and haunting fantasy, from a human perspective to a dog’s-eye-view of the world.
The hand that feeds – and also brutalizes – is righteously bitten in White God. It considers how any canine can become the unfortunate repository for its master’s darkest impulses. It’s a sort of political, apocalyptic fable in which the maltreatment of forsaken animals becomes a potent metaphor for everything from immigration to the abuse of power.
In spite of its unembellished plot, White God is an ambitious undertaking: it’s part Dardennes or Arnold coming-of-age story, part street chase thriller, part Marxist commentary. Ruthless and sentimental, deathly stern and a little impossible to take seriously, it suffers from a scattershot tone. The more you command it to sit and stay – to settle down as plausible, or to cohere – the more it slips its leash and runs amok. Its set-up ultimately proves distracting, and it’s also a bit overdrawn.
Yet no matter how broad or uneven, White God is an entertaining, moving parable of oppression; an emotionally rousing man-vs-dog adventure; a brutal but stirring fantasy about street dogs rising up against cruel and indifferent humans. This canine-centric drama is a breathtaking beast of its own, with smarts and visceral impact in equal measure. It’s Beauty and the Beast with bared teeth.
Who, exactly, is going to want to watch a film built around graphic dog abuse? People who are justifiably curious about an advancing talent, those who appreciate directorial flair, and those who remember the film’s message: “Everything terrible is something that needs our love.”