- Kristy McNichol as Julie Sawyer
- Paul Winfield as Keys
- Burl Ives as Carruthers
A confronting film about racism, White Dog is necessarily uncomfortable and probing as it really takes on the subject matter and doesn’t sugar coat anything, making it chillingly realistic.
Julie Sawyer is a struggling actress in Los Angeles, who one night while driving home runs over a white German Shepherd. After taking it for treatment and ensuring that it is fine, she contemplates taking the dog in as a pet. Her schedule is usually busy and she is attempting for forge a successful career, but she eventually takes the large dog into her home. All seems to be going pretty swell as the dog takes kindly to her and she grows quite fond of him. Julie gets her first indication of the dogs viciousness when it defends her from a would be rapist and almost kills him. Then the dog is involved in two incidents, both of which involve an attack and in one case death of black people. Shocked by all of this and unsure of what to do, Julie takes the dangerous canine to an animal training outfit. The unit is run by two men; the old and crusty Carruthers and pragmatic, black Keys. Upon witnessing the dog’s ferocity, they explain that the dog that Julie has taken in is in fact a White Dog; a canine that has been trained to attack black people on sight after being taught from a young age. Carruthers thinks it would be best to kill the dog, but Keys won’t have it and takes it upon himself to educate and hopefully erode away the hatred within the dog. He has failed twice in the past, but this time he wants to full eradicate the barbaric thing in the dog’s brain that causes it to attack black people. Julie agrees to this and observes, desperately praying that somehow Keys can break down the training that the dog endured to help it be well again. But Keys finds that attempting to recondition the dog is going to test him far beyond anything he has done before. As the weeks wear on, is there any chance that Keys can finally get through to the animal or is it too late for it?
Samuel Fuller pulls no punches with his direction that goes straight for the jugular and refuses to be watered down, highlighting the horrors and impacts of racism and ignorance in society. Particularly of note is his persistent usage of intense close-ups that leave no room for falsehood or privacy, capturing the eyes of the people and especially the dog with incisive attention. Racism is tackled head on in White Dog and never made easy for us to view. I respect the movie for presenting it that way and not feeling the need to try to do something more toned-down. Yes the scenes of the dog attacking are horrifying, but they are meant to be and really get under the skin. The most horrifying is the savage attack on a man inside an empty church, with the sanctity of the place tainted by the brutality of the dog. The production history of the film is quite a hot potato as the film was never given a cinematic release in America. It was said that studio executives became scared of the topics the film dealt with( some even labeled the film itself as racist) and Fuller had to take the film to Europe, where it was received well as a daring and throat grabbing social commentary. I find the fact that some thought the film itself was racist quite baffling, as White Dog is very much against racism throughout. It deals with the topic of racism but at no point does it promote or encourage racism; it actually carefully picks apart the ignorance of it and whether racism and hatred can be undone once the seed is there. The movie never gives any easy answers but probes the very nature of these questions with grave intensity and honesty. That is what makes White Dog so fascinating, it isn’t easy or comfortable viewing but very stark and horrifying stuff that tackles a difficult issue with immediacy. The dog itself is a symbol of how something can be warped by those whose ideals are disturbed and distorted, and ultimately ends up as horrifying as them. Ennio Morricone is the man on scoring duty and he serves up an eerie yet melancholic series of musical arrangements that highlight the depth of the movie and the ultimate tragedy of the canine that has been brainwashed into a monstrous thing.
The relatively small cast bring good credentials to this up close and personal film. Kristy McNichol, while being sometimes a little too cute in other parts I’ve seen her in, is actually very sensitive and filled with a deep concern that registers well with the audience. McNichol reacts to the revelations and horror of the new pet she has in a very natural way, she almost doesn’t know how to feel. I’m sure the audience would be the same way in her shoes as McNichol does a commendable job in the lead. Even better and the real standout of the piece is Paul Winfield in a finely tuned performance. Exuding a patience, growing angst and stoic nature, Winfield is the determined drive of the story, who finds even his own methods challenged by the dog. The matter of retraining the animal is of the biggest importance to the character of Keys and the dignity found in Paul Winfield perfectly matches that. Burl Ives rounds out events as Key’s animal training partner who watches the attempts to cure the dog, but whose mind is completely against any such idea working.
So while the movie is definitely not for the faint of heart, White Dog will most definitely get your brain working with the difficult themes it conjures up and will have you thinking about for a long time. A disturbing and challenging film is what White Dog emerges as, and should be applauded for it as it is a difficult movie to shake off once you’ve viewed it.