“This one has heart.”
It’s the scariest line from “White God,” Kornel Mundruczo’s strangely poignant, surprisingly profound film. Why? Because it’s meant as a sinister vow to exploit and bleed that pure heart until it’s hardened and black. Over the course of “White God,” a ruthless trainer will turn Hagen (played by twin dogs Luke and Body), a sad-eyed mixed breed with the tawny coat of a golden retriever, from cuddly mutt into ferocious Frankenstein. Hagen’s good nature is twisted, and he soon brawls with other dogs during gruesome underworld fighting matches.
As witnesses to this atrocious transformation, in which canine innocence is replaced by programmed aggression, we will later cheer Hagen on as he rises up against those who abused and abandoned him. In an effort to both avenge himself and re-unite with Lili (Zsófia Psotta), his adoring adolescent owner, Hagen leads an army of outraged dogs to wreak havoc across Budapest, Hungary.
“White God” echoes “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and other films from the animals-gone-wild genre, but with a crucial difference. By employing no CGI, opting instead to use 250 genuine dogs to enact its canine rampage, “White God” feels startlingly fresh. It’s as if we’ve been so sledgehammered by computer imagery that “real” effects seem excitingly novel – with an emotional reality that CGI can’t come close to capturing. Early in the film, Hagen lurches in bewildered panic at an unfamiliar, busy intersection as honking cars drive by. This convincing depiction of his fear commands our empathy in a way that computerized illusion simply cannot match.
As “White God” begins, the film presents Lili as a lost soul still smarting from the divorce of her parents. She lives with her mom, who has since re-married. Hagen, the adolescent’s cuddly, beloved dog, acts as her one reliable relationship. Early scenes of Lili and Hagen playing together in a yard are illuminated by beaming rays of sun, like an idealized memory of happier times. When these two best friends stare down at the panorama of Budapest from a mountaintop, Hagen lifts a paw over Lili’s forearm in a gesture of both protection and affection.
After mom announces that she’s spending the next several months in Australia, Lili and Hagen are forced to move in with Daniel (Sándor Zsótér), the girl’s resentful father. As the two are dropped off with Daniel, a haggard-looking man with balding head and greying beard, we immediately sense friction. Father and daughter face each other in the parking lot for the first time in ages, and it feels more like a tense Mexican stand-off than a family reunion.
Daniel was once an esteemed university professor, now working as a meat inspector in a bovine slaughterhouse (we’re given little information on what prompted this career change). There’s a ghoulish early scene of a cow being gutted, its milky intestines oozing to the floor like a string of slimy white balloons. Seconds later, a bone saw hacks the carcass in half, and the inspector approves the healthiness of its condition – eventually stamping “approved” onto a skinned flank. This unpleasant sequence suggests both the father’s fall to a lower rung of societal status, and the calculated indifference in which man can exploit animals.
Much to Lili’s disappointment, Daniel dislikes Hagen. She feeds him table scraps, and dad gives her the stink-eye. He refuses to allow Hagen access to the bedroom where Lili sleeps, insisting that the unwanted canine spend nights in the bathroom. When Hagen howls, Lili serenades him with her trumpet until he drifts into sleep. Clearly, Mundruczo believes music to be a transcendent power that reaches beyond humankind to comfort many of the earth’s other living creatures. Throughout “White God,” soothing sounds will act as catalysts for calm.
When authorities come knocking on Daniel’s door, demanding a fee required by law from owners of “mixed breed” mutts by the Budapest government (a rule that’s not actually in place but, according to Mundruczo, was almost passed by Hungarian Parliament), Daniel refuses to pay. Enraged at the burden that his daughter’s pet has become, Daniel dumps Hagen onto the harsh and lonely streets of downtown Budapest.
It is here that Hagen must outwit butchers, beggars, dog patrol cops, and the worst of the bunch – a cartel of criminal dogfight organizers. “White God” descends into darkness, as our canine hero is involuntarily programmed into a killer. But the dog’s pure-hearted nature remains buried beneath. After winning a brutal dogfight, his snout coated with blood, Hagen sniffs the opponent’s dead body. His viciousness appears to melt, replaced with both a sad realization of the monster he’s become, and a burning anger at those who caused this transformation. It’s an amazingly nuanced scene, and perhaps the best animal acting ever put onscreen.
After escaping from his trainer, Hagen and many of his fellow strays will soon be captured and caged within the chain-link fences of an oppressive dog pound. But the canines find power in masses, soon escaping their captors and – under Hagen’s command – warring against the human society that has thrown them away.
The stunning scenes that follow, in which hundreds of dogs charge through city streets and settle scores with Hagen’s past foes, should be laughably ludicrous. But they work, and I can’t help but think that the realism of these effects is what makes it all convincing. One sequence in particular, where Lili crosses an empty bridge on a bicycle with the stampede of animals gaining in hot pursuit, is a brilliant and surreal blend of post-apocalyptic dread and Hitchcockian terror.
The director also paints his unsympathetic human characters with complicated grey strokes. Sure, there are villains walking his dangerous Budapest streets, but we understand their intentions. Lili’s hot-tempered father still smarts from career demotion and divorce. The desperate beggar who rescues Hagen from authorities, then betrays him, is simply acting on his street-survival instincts. The film’s despicable dogfight trainer, recently released from prison, owes serious underworld debts. All are essentially losers, their bitterness stemming from a sense of abandonment that reflects Hagen’s own neglect. Mundruczo doesn’t take the easy way out by giving us obvious, cardboard bad guys: we’re unsettled by the fact that there are reasons for their actions, however questionable.
“White God” ends with not a bang, but a profound whisper. Its power rests in the wise faces of these animals: the untamed hair of a terrier’s brows, the alert black eyes of a Rottweiler, and the worried folds of a hound’s fleshy forehead are grouped together during one delicate, cathartic symphony that will put mist in your eyes and a bowling ball-sized lump in your throat.
As a thriller, a canine character study, an unusual love story, and a parable on mistreatment by our Haves on our Have-Nots, “White God” works. It’s a stunner with bite.