'White God,' starring more than 200 dogs is a manipulative piece of miserablism

City Paper

Dog movies are sort of, like, a thing right now? Not the talking-animal sort for kiddies but proper movies. Last year, there was “John Wick,” in which Keanu Reeves plays an assassin who gets a dog when his wife dies, only to have it killed by Russian mobsters, which leads to Reeves killing every Russian mobster he can find. And 2014 also brought us “The Drop,” a sweet little gangster picture in which a scrappy underdog of a bartender played by Tom Hardy finds a puppy in the trash and takes it home—the dog as a respite from the rest of the movie’s unforgiving, Scorsese-like world of crime.

So, we’ve had a knowing, lowbrow dog movie and whip-smart puppy-fueled pulp, and now, with “White God”—wobbly political parable from Hungary that was a hit at Cannes last year—we have the big slobbery piece of cinephile bait. “White God” follows tween-just-turned-teen child of divorce Lili (Zsófia Psotta) and her mutt Hagen to her defeated and depressed dad’s house where she’s going to stay for a while while mom goes out of town for work. There is a tax in Hungary that must be paid for all non purebred dogs and dad, sad dick that he is, doesn’t want to pay it, mostly because he didn’t want the dog there at all.

So, Hagen’s out on the streets and “White God” bounces between Hagen and Lili’s miseries once they’re split up, with Lili dealing with being a teen and Hagen enduring abuse (including being forced to fight other dogs) before teaming up with a roving group of dogs who stage something like a revolution against their human tormentors by attacking them en masse. It is a half-formed though clever-enough commentary on Europe’s fear of miscegenation (the dogs are like Europe’s poor, kind of . . . or something) and an ambitious spectacle that orchestrates scenes with more than 200 dogs (all proper mutts, by the way). It is also mad gimmicky, and as we’ve seen with the accolades piled on “Boyhood” or the cult of Lars von Trier, “smart” film culture loves a good gimmick. I hesitate to provide too many specific details about the the plot because “White God” is based on a series of reveals and, starting with the very first scene, it teases the whole “more than 200 dogs” thing and how exactly they will figure into the story, so it’s best to go in relatively fresh. Though this too speaks to the shtickiness of the movie–it does, to some extent, rely on “spoilers.”

Seeing all of these dogs and knowing they’re all real is fascinating, though typically, many critics have framed director Mundruczó’s stunt as some critique of computer-generated effects, which is a cheap authenticity strawman (directors should use whatever is at their disposal to make their movies and we can praise crazy ambition without dismissing CGI, a crucial element in filmmaking these days). What’s much more impressive about “White God,” anyway, is how these cinematic techniques express a deep empathy for the dogs. It resists anthropomorphizing the dogs and because these are all real animals, we observe a lot of dog behavior—tiny looks or reactions that will remind you of your own dog that other movies couldn’t obtain or would cut out to smooth out the rough edges that come with working with animals. It’s telling that the camera often roves around at the dog’s level, as if it’s getting right down there with them. Mundruczó doesn’t deny their dog-ness. It also has some excellently observed moments that illustrates how fathers can’t handle the adolescence of their daughters so they grow contemptuous of them.

Still, “White God” is uncomfortable to watch, and not because you’re watching violence committed upon animals (though that could be hard to stomach for some viewers) but because its rough realism is smug and manipulative. Animals, especially dogs, move the majority of us on sight, which means that if you show them getting harmed, it’s really easy to fuck a viewer’s head up. What made me feel queasy was less the violence than the way you can feel how proud the film is for making you watch its violence to make some muddled allegory about how the poor are treated and how they’re going to rise up (its politics are surface level and hollow, reminiscent of last year’s shticky “Snowpiercer”).

What made clever trash like “John Wick” work is that it winked when it delivered over-the-top pathos (sick dying wife gives sad hubby a dog and then the dog is killed) and “The Drop” was wise to focus on the dog as a reprieve from all the brutality (you’re never waiting for the animal to be threatened or harmed, which would be a cheap way to ratchet up tension). Even in the world of proper “film,” where “White God” ostensibly fits, there are better examples of movies about harm to animals that aren’t so cloying: Robert Bresson’s 1966 movie “Au Hasard Balthazar,” undoubtedly an influence on “White God,” elevates a donkey to saint status for its suffering at the hands of a series of owners and it is devastating, and in 2012’s “Post Tenebras Lux,” a brutal cryptic rumination on “evil” (it is “Tree Of Death,” the antithesis of Terence Malick’s “Tree of Life”) we witness a pup get beaten close to death for no reason at all—a vicious scene that captures the quotidian, chaotic elements of cruelty.

In those movies, you never get the sense that the person behind them believe they’re rubbing viewers’ faces in “reality,” which is the problem with Mundruczó’s approach. He’s a moralizing wet sandwich delivering a plain and simple message—the world’s a horrible place, but love wins out every once in a while. This is basically a fairy tale for cynical adults that seriously stacks the deck: a teenager’s sexual awakening, the awfulness of white bougie adults, and adorable dogs being abused. It’s all a bit much. 

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