It may be as scrappy as its canine hero, but there’s no denying the power of White Dog
Kornél Mundruczó’s Hungarian drama White God opens with perhaps the most striking shot of the year. Teenage musician Lili (Zsófia Psotta) cycles through the hauntingly empty streets of Budapest. From behind, we suddenly see the rush as a two hundred-strong army of dogs run behind her. Are they giving chase, or following her lead? Though nothing else in White God is as intriguing or breath-taking as the opening two minutes, the film is as powerful and original as anything I’ve seen this year.
Animal lovers beware; White God tells a brutal and often upsetting story. Lili arrives at father Daniel (Sándor Zsótér)’s house for the summer, half-breed dog Hagen in tow. After Hagen causes a ruckus with the neighbours and disrupts Lili’s music practice, Daniel has enough and throws the dog out onto the streets. From there, we witness two parallel stories; Lili wanders the streets searching for beloved mutt while rebelling against Daniel, while Hagen faces the harsh world of dog fights and animal shelters.
It is Hagen’s story that is the most interesting, and certainly the most unique. Has there ever been a live action film that focused so much on an animal protagonist? Other than the bloody atrocious Benji movies, I’m not sure there has, and it’s a credit to the writing, directing, and creative editing that Hagen’s story is so fascinating. Strangely, these sequences do bring to mind other films; the horribly realistic dog fights are almost identically staged and directed like Amores Perros; Hagen’s capture and subsequent canine revolution bring to mind Spartcaus or, more fittingly, Rise of the Planet of the Apes; and the final scenes as the dogs take over the city are staged as survival horror – Night of the Living Dog. Even if you don’t love animals, it’s hard not to be moved and appalled by Hagen’s treatment, as he’s pumped with drugs and trained to kill by grubby lowlifes. Presumably it took a mammoth editing job to create a conceivable narrative, but it works well, and Hagen comes across as perhaps the finest actor on four legs since Uggi in The Artist.
Lili’s story is less successful. White God suffers from that most indie of problems; not having enough material to fill up two hours. Despite some of Lili’s domestic scenes, such as an argument with her flamboyant music teacher, are impressively sketched and performed, a lot of her scenes tend towards indulgence. A few scenes of Lili searching for Hagen here and there are fine, but there are just too many generic wandering shots which serve little to no purpose. Even worse, a scene in a nightclub is utterly perfunctory, and offers us repetitive scenes of flashing lights and irritating dance music for a good five minutes. It reminded me of my least favourite scene of the year, in A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, and really dampened the mood set by the great acting from young lead Psotta.
White Dog is far from perfect. The dragged out, unimportant scenes keep it from really excelling as a great independent drama. However, I found the film really quite powerful and often really intriguing. This is partly due to the direction, which keeps things from ever straying into clichés or sentimentality. Let it be known that White Dog is a harsh film, framing ugly events in beautiful ways. Many people will find it unwatchable due to the sickening animal abuse and violence on display. Make it through these difficult scenes and you will find a quietly moving and effective film. White Dog may often focus on violence and movement and fast, furious action (including strays into creature horror with a few grisly deaths towards the end), but rather than building towards an explosive climax, the film ends with one of the most serenely gorgeous final shots of the year.
If nothing else, White Dog has a real claim at the best opening and closing shots of 2015. It’s scrappy and messy and a little all-over-the-place, but this is adrenalized, inventive filmmaking, with real heart beneath its brutality.
By Harry Ford