Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Review: "White God"

Director: Kornel Mundruczo
Runtime: 121 minutes

Dogs may be man's best friend, but that doesn't mean they're without limits. Push our canine comrades too far, and you may just incite a revolution. That's the case with Hungarian director Kornel Mundruczo lays out in this gritty, R-rated fable of abuse and righteous animal fury. Though at times hindered by an unshapely middle, Mundruczo's latest (which has been pulling in the accolades since last year's Cannes) still packs the technical skill and storytelling urgency required to help his premise click.

After the eerie opening, in which Lili (Zsofia Psotta) rides through a deserted Budapest, White God rewinds to trace the acts that led to such a ghostly transformation. When Lili is left with her stern father Daniel (Sandor Zsoter), she clashes with him about third, furry member of the household: Lili's mutt Hagen. Lili's bond with Hagen is strong, so it's time for the world to put a strain on it. After one too many mishaps involving the mutt, Daniel abandons the dog by a river bank. What follows is a quest for reunion, but if you're expecting a European take on Homeward Bound, you'll want to brace yourself. By the time the film returns to the opening shots, you might find yourself wishing that the deserted city was going up in flames.

Working with animals is rarely easy. Working with over 100 of them is probably a nightmare. Yet what Mundruczo pulls off with White God is frequently astounding. The camera often jumps down to Hagen's eye line, and long stretches pass with barely any human languages heard at all. Hagen (and the dogs he meets during his journey) are a solid bunch of performers, often outdoing their human counterparts. Thanks to sharp editing, White God is able to string together images that, with only a few barks and tilts of the head, convey entire conversations among a canine cast that often fills the frame by the dozen.

Hagen's Homeric journey is so gripping on its own, that there's often a tinge of disappointment any time the film returns to Lili and Daniel. Though Zsoter is solid as the domineering (but not unreasonable) father, Psotta doesn't bring much dimensionality to Lili. Nearly every scene is played at the same level, so whether Lili is acting up in school or crying out for her dog, Psotta's performance never shows variation. Mundruczo keeps the tone of the film cool-headed, but the human angle of the story still comes off as a missed opportunity to really deepen the film's impact on multiple levels.

In jumping between Hagen and Lili, White God does get a little padded in the middle. Mundruczo's execution of Hagen's trials hits hard, whether you're a dog lover or not. Some scenes are squirm-worthy (a "training" sequence involving a seedy new owner), while others are downright brutal). Hagen's scenes have enough storytelling momentum on their own, and the frequent jumps to the humans, though never bad, simply feel like wheel-spinning. 

Yet everything falls back into place just as White God gallops towards its finale. The collision of the human and animal worlds, without the aid of any special effects, is a stunner. With all of the build-up finished, Mundruczo finally lets loose, and he delivers quite a show without betraying his work's intentions and themes. And even though White God never really evolves past its indictment of animal cruelty, the film never grows redundant, even when the pacing falters. Though not quite as lean as its canine hero, White God is an exciting, vibrant work that gives an unlikely group of disaffected subjects some long-overdue cinematic justice.

Grade: B+

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