A young girl is separated from her dog, who searches the city for his lost owner — but when that fails, the dog leads an army of other abandoned dogs, in a canine uprising to kill all the humans.
There’s nothing about that synopsis that is off-base, but it inspires a different interpretation of how this movie should be taken. I was envisioning an insane horror movie, Cujo to the nth power. In many ways, it is exactly that, but that’s slighting the film and its visionary Hungarian filmmaker Kornél Mundruczó. White God is one of the more difficult movies you’ll see all year, an uncomfortable, vengeful thriller, an unabashed throttling of modern society and race relations.
In White God, Hungary has enacted a new law taxing mixed breed dogs, forcing citizens to pony up for their mutts, with an eye toward purebred puppies. I found this the most unbelievable notion of the entire film (and it involves a dog uprising), but the inference couldn’t be clearer: dogs are a placeholder for minorities, or mixed races; this is Hitler’s Master Race all over again, but for our pets.
None of that matters to Lilli (an incredible Zsofia Psotta), a 13 year old kid who adores Hagen (who’s an absolutely gorgeous reddish-brown dog), mutt be damned. When she’s forced to stay with her estranged father Daniel (Sandor Zsoter), like Hagen, she’s forced to come to grips with the harsh reality of life.
White God isn’t subtle. I was astounded by how awful Hagen was treated; it just didn’t make sense. This is the kind of world where everyone (save the children, who Kornél posits, can still be saved, or are perhaps our savior) is that conniving neighbor who alerts the authorities about every little thing. In this instance, it’s un-taxed dogs. It’s uncomfortable to see such blatant violence, hatred and persecution toward anything (as it should be), and it’s no accident that Kornél chooses dogs to receive the brunt end of such visceral punishment, to show humanity turning on “man’s best friend.” Everyone loves dogs…in fact, in our society violence and mistreatment of dogs is no worse than doing it to humans (just ask Michael Vick). You’ll want to close your eyes for much of the first half of White God, and you’ll likely question if the journey is worth it. But it is.
Lilli’s father is just as bad as everyone else, refusing to pay the tax on the dog, blaming Lilli’s mother (and his ex) for putting him in such a crappy situation. He’s a Disney evil step-mother, except this is a flesh and blood father in a live action movie. White God pulls no punches, and neither does Daniel. He abandons Hagen on the streets, which as you can imagine, doesn’t go over well with his daughter. From there, it’s the inverse of Homeward Bound in every way imaginable, as Hagen learns the vices and evil of Man, encountering vile government sponsored dogcatchers, vicious hobos and yes, a dog fighting trainer. It’s Call of the Wild without the blind romanticism, as we see Hagen changed by each new tragic circumstance, on the brink of becoming grist in the mill of Man until realizing that’s enough dammit. Hagen then incites a rebellion against his many Masters, and it becomes Planet of the Dogs, with Hagen as Caesar, and Lilli as a far more innocent and likable James Franco.
It’s impossible not to be absolutely astounded by the performance (?) of the dogs in this movie. It’s not just the two dogs who play Hagen (Luke and Body), but every single one of the 250 we see. Trainer Teresa Miller (whose father Karl Lewis Miller worked on Babe, Beethoven and the aforementioned Cujo) deserves every award. How did she get these dogs to do all these things?! The film goes out of its way multiple times to assuage our fears: no harm came to the dogs while training and filming, but believing otherwise is almost the only way to wrap your head around how real everything feels. Without any CGI whatsoever, Miller created an army, showing the very real motivations and reactions of these dogs (who all came from shelters and afterwards, were all adopted into new homes).
White God is rough, and even when it verges into revenge thriller/horror territory, it’s never exactly fun. Yet, it’s impossible not to rally behind Hagen and Kornél’s film, because even amid the violence, there is a glimmer of hope, and that is the art and music of the next generation, one that should take Kornél’s lead.
Magnolia Pictures’ White God arrives in theaters March 27, 2015.