In the first five minutes of White God, viewers are greeted by two striking images. In the first, a teenage girl pedals vigorously through the middle of an empty city street, a fleet of dogs furiously chasing after her. In the other, a cow carcass is dispassionately stripped and gutted in preparation to be examined by a meat inspector. More indelible moments await in Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó’s social parable, but these early scenes hint at everything that’s to come. White God isn’t the first film to suggest that humanity’s cruel treatment of others will one day come back to haunt us—but it certainly makes its point with potent force.
Winner of the top prize in Un Certain Regard at Cannes last year, and set in modern-day Budapest, White God begins as a deceptively lighthearted boy-and-his-dog story. Actually, it’s a young lady and her dog: 13-year-old Lili (Zsófia Psotta) hangs out with her best friend, a mixed-breed named Hagen. (Sibling dogs from the American Southwest, Bodie and Luke Miller, play the canine.) Lili’s mom is leaving for a trip to Australia with her new man, dumping the girl off with her ex-husband Daniel (Sándor Zsótér), the glum meat inspector we met earlier. (He used to be a professor, but something has happened to cause him to lose that position.)
There’s no love lost between Lili’s divorced parents, and Daniel isn’t particularly thrilled to be hosting Hagen in his modest apartment. Adding to the irritation, the government has just announced that owners of mixed-breed dogs must pay a special tax because of these animals’ undesirable qualities, and soon Hagen’s presence is reported to the authorities by Daniel’s neighbors. Frustrated by his lot in life and annoyed with the dog, Daniel rashly drops Hagen off in the middle of the street and then drives away, Lili crying in the car as her dad speeds further and further from her sidekick.
A grim twist on the Incredible Journey stories of yesteryear, White God soon divides into two narratives. In one, Lili, a trumpeter, takes part in a youth orchestra, going through the typical adolescent rites of passage of falling for boys and confronting peer pressure. By contrast, Hagen’s journey is far more brutal. Left to fend for himself, the dog encounters several humans who show little concern for his well-being, particularly a man (Szabolcs Thuróczy) who brainwashes him into becoming a brutal killer for underground dogfighting competitions.
Director and co-writer Mundruczó (Tender Son: The Frankenstein Project and Delta) uses these parallel stories to create an ironic juxtaposition of coming-of-age tales. Stripped of her closest companion, the withdrawn Lili must learn to interact with a world of enigmatic teenagers and demanding orchestra conductors. Hagen, clearly meant to be a symbol for minorities and perceived second-class humans of all kinds, is exploited and dehumanized (so to speak) for other people’s benefit. While Mundruczó sees White God as a commentary on racial tension in Europe, the film is despairingly far more universal in its theme, with its message of inequality and rigid class structures echoing across America, Africa and elsewhere.
To be sure, that’s not a particularly novel concept—the recent Planet of the Apes reboots have skillfully addressed similar thematic terrain—but what elevates White God beyond the forcefulness of its commentary is the precision of its execution. Eschewing special effects to bring Hagen to life, Mundruczó worked with veteran animal trainer Teresa Ann Miller, who owns Bodie and Luke Miller, to give the dog a genuine presence in the film. Consequently, Hagen’s ordeal has a palpable realness—a legitimate sense of stakes—that’s all the more remarkable because we know we’re not watching a CGI animal. One wonders how much of a nightmare it must have been at times for Mundruczó and cinematographer Marcell Rév to stage their scenes, some of them meticulously composed with moving cameras, while working with a dog performer. Nonetheless, the end result feels effortless, which allows the audience to marvel at the technical achievement while never losing focus on Mundruczó’s political points.
If White God means to warn us about the degradation of our fellow life forms, its conclusion will not be a surprise to those who’ve seen the aforementioned Planet of the Apes movies or, even, The Birds. Eventually, Hagen and his fellow canines will rise up, and this drama’s finale builds to a series of powerful sequences that revel in their primal catharsis. It can be terrifying but, also, oddly comic, Mundruczó tweaking horror conventions—such as the familiar sight of the killer popping up in the background of a frame—by replacing the murderous psychopath character with a few unloved mutts. However, the brief laughs stick in the throat, an acknowledgment of the very human reasons that oppressed groups resort to violence when more peaceful avenues prove futile. Ultimately, the film’s human characters aren’t that interesting, but they’re not meant to be. White God is a dark twist on the underdog story, its tense, ambiguous ending a bitter reminder of what happens when we all just can’t get along.
Director: Kornél Mundruczó
Writers: Kata Wéber, Kornél Mundruczó, Viktória Petrányi
Starring: Zsófia Psotta, Sándor Zsótér, Szabolcs Thuróczy, Bodie and Luke Miller
Release Date: March 27, 2015
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste and the vice president of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter.