White God

White God is a Hungarian film about men and dogs, and the chasm that exists between them, bridged, as ever, by a pre-adolescent girl. This movie is a lesson in missed opportunities.

I should mention at the outset that the blurb in the Cannes catalogue suggested a sort of “revolution against mankind” by mongrel dogs who have been exiled due to new legislation that favours pedigree dogs and heavily taxes their crossbreed cousins. I went into the cinema bracing for tragedy, but optimistic for some weighty political allegory, or at least some radical vegan anti-humanism.

What we got instead was a schitzoid mix of “the Incredible Journey“, “les Mis√®rables”, and the most recent remix of “the Planet of the Apes”. It was a tragic case of wasted resources and missed opportunities that opted for a Disney storyline with too much blood and swearing for kids, with an indecisive mission for the film’s hero, and a morally conservative punchline.

The missed opportunities I am referring to are threefold. The first was onscreen assets. This is going to get a little sappy for a moment, but please, bear with me. The film’s hero, Hagen, is a charismatic crossbreed (I’m guessing Labrador, Sharpei and Pitbull) who is both eminently watchable and exceptionally well trained. This is something you almost never see in movies. The dog was born an actor. But it doesn’t stop there: the film’s opening scene depicts Hagen’s owner, the laconic tween, Lili, riding a bicycle in slow mo and being chased by literally hundreds of dogs. It was a cinematic exception, echoed in dozens of similar surreally beautiful shots throughout the film: a river of dogs streaming through holes in fences, over barricades, through tunnels of moving cars. The animal wranglers on this project deserve a prize. They managed to organize a pack of over a hundred dogs of all shapes and sizes to move in unison for long tracking shots through city streets, to sit and stand and vary in speed on command, and to behave alternately menacingly or docilely with incredible control. Having had a considerable amount of experience with dogs, I respect that this is no mean feat and could have been used in the narrative to much greater effect.

The second missed opportunity was the disparity between the revolutionary blurb and the distinctly non-revolutionary content of the film. It promised a scenario that conscripted tricky themes of eugenics, class warfare, and the possibly congruity of human and canine intelligence. At the very least, I expected an allegorical commentary on the dangers of assuming “otherness,” Charlton Heston style, or the overbearance of the State on the private lives of its citizens. Sadly, this was not an ideological revolt but a shambolic coup, and did nothing in terms of a broader narrative to expand the dialogue between humans and canines, nor did it offer insight into the connective tissue between the two parallel societies (men and dogs) in the film. The dogs, however, had their day. A third of the film was a near comedic invasion of Budapest by an absolutely enormous pack of visibly friendly, healthy, well trained mongrel dogs.

The third missed opportunity, and here comes a spoiler, is that the film sold out its heroes. This is a brave move. After spending two hours bonding with a hero, a harder sell if that hero is not a human being (and a deeper bond if successful), the audience is invested in his fate. If you are going to sell out your heroes, it must be to a good cause – the message relayed in their failure must be greater than the value of their survival. If this truly had been a war film as touted, the Butch and Sundance ending for the massive pack of dogs who surrendered to the gentle touch of a human girlchild would have stood as a sacrifice for the greater good, or bridged a gap towards a common goal between species. Instead, the overarching lesson seemed to be ..the beguiling gift of music? Lili’s soothing trumpet playing was the ultimate antidote to the dogs’ brief and vengeful rein of terror, and their bloody doom, though postponed past the roll of the credits, was inevitable.

Between Lili’s father who was confusingly both cruel and loving and who ejected Hagen from the car at the side of highway during an argument with his daughter at the beginning of the film, and a staggeringly numerous team of inept dog catchers, and a ring of dogfighters with an outright bizarre training mandate (cue Rocky training montage featuring meat nailed to various surfaces, a home made treadmill and meals of cream and creatine powder), who lend an absurdly comic tone to a film, the ultimate success of the values of the peripheral human roles reveal some deep rooted problems with the authority that we as men exercise over dogs with impunity.

The Captive

A lot can be forgiven of a film that offers itself as a philosophical proposition rather than a morality play. While there is a particular trend in popular media since the 90s to use paedophilia as a central theme to sell itself, it is ultimately kind of a cop out. Everyone can unite against a rhetorical device that is just fundamentally evil, without any blurred boundaries. Even those films from the last 20 years that take a “sympathy for the devil” stance, like the Woodsman are underwritten by a series of assertions that are constantly reaffirmed about the total lack of moral ambiguity attached to the sexualization of children. I will cite both Kubrick‘s Lolita and Malle‘s Pretty Baby as notable exemptions; despite the controversy they created, their cinematic value as well as their artful ambiguity afford them a coveted space under the protective umbrella of ‘artworks’ that preclude them from adhering too rigorously to social conventions, not to mention that they were both made in periods where arthouse film was not yet relegated to the margins of cinema culture. Morally speaking, the territory of paedophilia is an immovable object against which any interrogation is both vulgar and futile.

So, as a director, to take on the challenge of addressing the issue ultimately leads to a limited number of outcomes: a protracted witchhunt inevitably resulting either in the victorious persecution of the paedo (Michael, Happiness, Hard Candy); the unjust persecution of an innocent man (Jagten); or the anti-cathartic failure of the hero to confront or disarm him (the Pledge), the latter two often resulting in the ultimate psychological collapse of the witchhunter.

Atom Egoyan‘s new film,¬†the Captive, takes a unique angle on the subject. For all of its flaws – the Captive suffers from awkward writing, a lack of chemistry between characters and a convoluted back-and-forth narrative trajectory that bounces irratically through time in an effort to connect a series of disappearances – the philosophocal position it puts forward is intriguing, and alludes to a lingering evil even darker than paedophilia. The central consideration for the villain, a man of both the financial and technological means to propose the experiment, seems to be “why focus my industry on the flesh of the child alone, which has a short shelf-life when compared to the anguish of the parents he or she was taken from?” The villain, Mika, a reptilian performance by Kevin Durand, using a network of cameras and victims who had outgrown their sexual purpose, documents the lives of the suffering parents who were wrecked by the uncertainty of the fates of their children. Should the anguish abate, he would bait them with signs of their children, who would narrate the videos with sentimental stories about the objects or scenes their parents were presented with, outlining exactly the depth of their suffering for the paying customer. The missing children become prudent instruments in their parents’ ordeal, and complicit in the expansion of the program that enslaves more parents and children to the secret machine fueled by suffering.

For the abstract and unspeakable darkness of the film’s central theme, the overall presentation is dry and often dogged by implausibility in its portrayal of the police. Mireille Enos is suitably unhinged as the mother of the missing Cass, working as a chambermaid in a hotel in Niagara Falls who frequently finds ‘gifts’ in the rooms of the hotel belonging to her daughter. Ryan Reynolds plays Cass’ father, and is pitted in a ridiculous conflict with the investigating detective who is convinced of his guilt, and Rosario Dawson is a dedicated detective whose obsession with the guardianship of young children does not mesh with the scattered fragments of her life we are exposed to.

The film’s greatest strength, however, is as a delivery device for the philosophical prospect of a new and abject realm of criminality that teeters closer to early Cronenberg than to any generic themes surrounding paedophilia: the wholesale trade of human suffering as a commodity that can radiate infinitely outward from a single act of violence.