It’s pretty easy for a film audience to fall in love with a canine star or sidekick. Photogenic dog actors excel at sad puppy-dog eyes, of course, so their mere presence draws us in to empathize with their “characters.” And Hollywood often subjects dog characters to peril – and doesn’t hesitate to kill them off.
And so any animal lover watching the Hungarian film White God, which opens in theaters Friday, is already predisposed to care about Hagen, the mixed-breed dog who leads an uprising against careless humans. Hagen (played by canine actors Luke and Bodie) is gorgeous, with soft eyes and a shaggy face. But unlike many other films starring animals, White God and its director Kornél Mundruczó don’t merely rely upon his furry heroes’ movie star looks to build our emotional connection throughout this fascinating morality tale. Through a series of specific choices in how his constantly-in-motion camera captures Hagen, Mundruczó gives Hagen a true character arc. The film dances happily between art-house intimacy and action-hero grandeur, Dardenne brothers meeting Planet of the Apes.
For the first half hour or so, White God is told from the point of view of Hagen’s young owner Lili (Zsófia Psotta). But when Lili and Hagen are separated, the film’s focus shifts. Hagen’s journey throughout the city feels similar to Marion Cotillard’s journey around town in the Dardennes’ recent Two Days, One Night. The camerawork is similar, too; Mundruczó keeps us in movement with Hagen just as the Dardennes followed Cotillard from house to house
Mundruczó even utilizes Hagen’s direct point of view, as in this Frogger-like scene of the dog trying to cross a busy street. It’s as if we’re walking a mile in his paws.
Mundruczó employs a similar point-of-view shot again when Hagen hides from a menacing butcher.
Often, we are put in these positions when Hagen is in immediate danger. It’s an effective method that feels more visceral than the way other animal movies treat such scenes. Take this sequence in Homeward Bound, in which Shadow, Chance, and Sassy attempt to cross train tracks just as a train is approaching. A single static shot tracks the train’s approach, while clumsy cuts mask the fact that the animals were filmed crossing the tracks separately. We’re distanced from their experience; unlike with Hagen, they never truly seem in danger.
Mundruczó shoots many scenes with Hagen in other naturalistic ways typically reserved for human actors. Take the dogfight scene. Trained to fight, Hagen enters his first match. We see the transformation of Hagen from lovable, affectionate stray to cold, detached animal in an incredibly visceral way. After Hagen defeats his opponent, Mundruczó homes in on Hagen’s face with a subtle zoom; this is interspersed with images of the wounded dying dog lying still, whimpering on the floor. The excited human voices echo in the background.
The scene feels inspired in a way by Raging Bull, with Hagen’s character arc rendered poetically and dramatically as Jake Lamotta’s is in many bouts in the ring. When my colleague Forrest Wickman and I interviewed the director at Sundance, he explained, “That was really conceptual, to be as close to the dogs [as possible]… to use them as in a documentary, or a nature movie … we watch their eyes very closely, and then we have lots of empathy.” It helps that, as we learned when we met Bodie, the film’s lead dogs are up to the task.
The final third of the movie, with its animal uprising, takes on a decidedly more Planet of the Apes-like tone, yet without losing the intimacy already established with Hagen. When he confronts the man—played by Mundruczó—who sold him to the dogfighter, turning him into the tortured animal that he’s become, the camera is situated over Hagen’s shoulder; we’re readily prepared for Hagen’s revenge, even excited to see it finally occur. Even though unlike Andy Serkis’ Caesar, Hagen doesn’t need to talk to bridge the gap between human and animal, he manages to seem more human-like and more empathetic. There’s a reason the canine cast of White God won the Palm Dog Award at Cannes last year.