A striking first frame or opening sequence, while not the solution to every problem, is definitely a big plus for any movie. After all, it’s the image that most immediately leaves an impression, sets the tone, puts your imagination to work. And a hugely promising start the Hungarian dramatic thriller “Fehér isten (White God)” does have. Unfortunately it turns out to be one of those downhill slides that never manage to regain the initial height again.
Directed by: Kornél Mundruczó
Running time: 117 minutes
Blunt, structurally complicated and contextually unusual, a static overhead shot of crisscrossing streets and highways on a crisp morning in Budapest- completely empty of traffic- drops like a brick with an almost illusionary optical starkness. The sense of unease only escalates as a lone bike-rider then pedals across the abandoned city, chased by probably the only thing even more worrisome than a pack of blood-thirsty zombies- a pack of angry-looking dogs. It’s an arresting overture impressive for its classical composition and tonal urgency. When it’s followed after the title card directly by a sequence of the young biker girl playing with her mutt in careless frolic from another time, the contrast is strong, the curiosity and expectation great.
For a while, it seems that the high hopes would be proven valid, too. The movie remains forcefully present, making especially good use of intensely corporal, symbol-heavy imagery like the carcasses and innards of skinned livestock in a slaughterhouse that are promptly, somewhat vulgarly stamped “suitable for consumption”. The smart iconography continues with the main character design: girl in hoodie, with bike in hands and trumpet in rucksack, roaming the neighborhood side by side with her loyal sidekick. It’s an instantly catchy, almost fable-like figure that easily consolidates a surreal tale around itself. So far, so good.
But then writer/director Kornél Mundruczó appears to run out of fresh ideas. The critical second act that should establish the story of how the frightening canine army came to be, begins with a hasty, simplistically constructed desertion that feels sorely inadequate. The subsequent parallel narrative is uneven at best, with the storyline following Hagen the dog consistently more interesting than the one about his anxious owner. The many angles that part of the story tackles, including the father-daughter relationship and a half-hearted attempt at adolescent romance, are generically conceived, failing to quicken the dramatic pulse which drops whenever the focus moves away from the dog. But even on the more adventurous front, the journey of a house pet to becoming a ruthless prizefighter is not particularly winning. The handful of escape sequences lack an adult edginess and come across as too harmless and Disney, an effect further strengthened by the fairly liberal use of “villainous” or “high-adrenalin” music throughout.
The third act, which ideally would bring the story full circle and realize that scary promise from the beginning, also falls way short. While the massive stampede scenes are still unquestionably awesome, without sufficient secondary references to back it up, the horror element employed here significantly misses the mark, so that everything from the theatrical woman-dog stare-down at the shelter gate to the subsequent elimination of the butcher, the animal trader, even the dog-hating neighbor, gets rather unintentionally comical.
The most glowing asset of the film is doubtlessly its award-winning (Palme Dog 2014) canine cast, in particular the leader of the pack Hagen. Easily out-acting his human colleagues, he fascinates with exact and expressive movements, whether in petrification, alertness, rage or bewilderment. Through the variety of his reactions he also manages to save the unimaginatively choreographed and shot dog fight scenes from truly tanking. Ultimately the spectacles and some soulful animal performances aren’t enough to salvage a film struggling with finding its own personality. The vicious brutality depicted here and there can hardly be reconciled with the kiddie-friendly plot paternalistically rendered. And when the final weapon against the bestial invasion, which everyone in the audience has long guessed, is drawn and resolves the crisis as expected, the deliciously macabre undertone from that great opening quote “Everything terrible is something that needs our love” is irreversibly flipped. What you see then among the fluffy chaos on screen is, above all else, a wasted opportunity.