“The film is so primarily affixed with connecting itself to its subtext that it fails to be a particularly well-told story on its own merits.”
by Ken Bakely
DISCLAIMER: This review contains spoilers.
It is apparent that Kornél Mundruczó’s White God is meant to be taken as a parable. Just take one hard look at the title. If you have a basic understanding of the issues currently (c. mid-2010s) affecting Europe – especially in the nations to the south and east, then you have a pretty good clue as to what subject it primarily addresses. The problem is that the film is so primarily affixed with connecting itself to its subtext that it fails to be a particularly well-told story on its own merits, instead overconsciously building to a deliriously over-the-top third act, in which the script begins to change gears, violently transforming into a mood and genre it previously showed no interest in. It’s not a plot twist, it’s forced, and nearly impossible to go along with, further derailing a movie which ends up sabotaging its own message with a blocky execution.
After a foreshadowing cold open which kills any genuine shock that the finalé could have held, the 122 minute picture effectively begins as a small chamber drama – while her mother is away, a thirteen year old girl named Lili (Zsófia Psotta) is left in the care of her father Dániel (Sándor Zsótér), a dour man who was once a professor, but now spends his time inspecting the split open carcasses of cows and marking the ones which are suitable for beef production. It is apparent that these two characters are hardly on good terms, exemplified in Dániel’s irate reaction to his daughter’s pet, a mixed breed dog named Hagen. A new law threatens all owners of non-purebreds with stiff fines, but Lili is unwilling to have Hagen put into a shelter, as it’s very likely that this spells death for the canine. Soon enough, tensions between her and Dániel come to a boiling point, and the casualty is the dog, who is abandoned on a roadside. The focus of White God then bifurcates. Hagen wanders the city streets before winding up where a lot of these strays do – in the company of dozens of dogs in the same situation. They are then all brutally abused, turned into violent killing machines by unsympathetic humans, with the ultimate goal of being bet on in massive underground (and a little bit overground) dogfighting rings. Meanwhile, Lili attempts to reconcile her relationship with her father, while constantly wondering if her beloved Hagen will ever return.
I realize now that it is impossible to fully describe the problems with White God without describing the transition that, as far as I can tell, Mundruczó somewhat intends to keep secret, despite a domestic marketing campaign and a first scene which says otherwise. So here goes – the dogs are sentient. And they break free, hundreds of them, nearly rabid, starved, and virulently tormented. Now, instead of fighting each other, they take their aggression out on a society which forgot them. Visual callbacks run aplenty. In one scene, Lili encounters the body of a butcher, with great heaps of flesh ripped out of his corpse and blood splattering the walls and floor, circling down the drain, a shot played off as a reversal, a reference to that same man threatening to kill two stray dogs earlier in the film (one of them Hagen), and chasing them around his shop with a butcher’s knife. The ironies and idiosyncrasies are too much for Mundruczó to pass up. It is in moments like these where the proceedings are quite enjoyable, as the absurdity of the way the plot has unfolded seems unilaterally clear. But other times, things are played oddly seriously, and as a result, have a tendency to drift into unintentional humor, such as a final five minutes based around one-dimensional black-and-white moralizing which falls thuddingly flat, considering the horror movie sensibilities that had been ported into most of what had come before.
It’s this kind of inconsistency which makes White God a difficult sell, and what gives it the most trouble in conveying to an audience that the ending has existed all along as the natural climax of the script. Yes, the employment of nearly three hundred actual dogs in the film’s climax is an impressive feat in and of itself, and to his credit, Mundruczó manages to cram some interesting compositional elements into the mayhem – particularly the concept of filming the wave of animals rushing directly across the screen either horizontally or vertically, to emulate a frightening machinistic, single-mindedness to the anarchy which follows. But even then, you get the feeling that the film is running way ahead of itself. If the story is indeed meant to be a cautionary tale of the karmic effects of discriminating against and marginalizing minorities, doesn’t it seem overwhelmingly counterintuitive to imply that said minorities will savagely overrun your city and rip people apart at the proverbial limbs? The movie that Mundruczó tries to make is very clear, but that ideal result is often far from what ends up on the screen.