The subway system is an undeniably miraculous means of transportation. At closer examination, it can also be viewed as a miserable underworld resembling Hell. Dark shadows are cast, sunlight is nowhere to be found, and people scurry around like rats upon the tracks. Everyone stares at their magazines or focuses on dust piles in the corner--anything to avoid direct eye contact. There is something very impersonal and depressing about the whole ordeal.
Kontroll is a film set entirely within the Budapest subway system, revolving around a nomadic lost-soul named Bulcsu (Sandor Csanyi), who works as a "controller", or ticket inspector. It has been months since he last saw the light of day, resorting to sleeping on the decks and walking around like an anemic zombie. He spends most of his time with his peers, as they carry out their unrewarding jobs. The passengers on the train do not appreciate being nagged for their tickets, and they treat the inspectors like annoying gnats they wish to squash. Some of the patrons even attack the workers with forceful hatred. And you thought your job was unsatisfying?
Bulcsu and his cronies appear to be the outcast slackers of their division, resembling a combination of the guys from Dazed & Confused and Clerks. They are often getting into trouble, poking fun at each other, and using as little of their potential as humanly possible. Sometimes they play dangerous games, such as 'railing', which involves racing behind a train and trying to get to the next subway platform before the next train plows you down. They all behave like stunted high school hooligans that never found their true niches in the real world. When Bulcsu bumps into someone he used to know in his life, he pretends he is simply a passenger, rather than a shameful employee of the system.
The plot thickens when a killer springs onto the scene, pushing unsuspecting people in front of subway cars and making them look like suicides. This turn of events disturbs the people running the Subway system, since multiple deaths in a short period of time can be detrimental to a company’s reputation. Throw in a strange luminous girl in a pink teddy bear suit, a train driver that acts as a caring father figure, and a troublesome delinquent named Bootsie (Bence Matyassy), and you’ve got a bizarre fairy tale gone oddly awry.
There are many things to admire and respect about Kontroll, the first feature from Hungarian writer/director Nimrod Antal. He offers a different style of film, which is always welcome, especially around this time of year when most studio releases are barely watchable. The film’s artsy, music video type atmosphere keeps your blood pumping, and a few times made me want to dance in my seat.
Despite an entertaining and original premise, a few scenes meander on too long and not all of the players are much more than walking punch lines. For example, the character of Muki (Csaba Pindroch), has no distinguishable characteristics beyond his narcolepsy. When conflict arises, he takes a nap. While this occurrence serves as comic relief, we learn nothing about him as a person. The same can be said for many of the movie’s other characters, since they appear and then quickly fade into the background. The heart and soul of the story is Bulcsu, and everyone else seems to exist as ornaments to support his adventures and quest for redemption.
Kontroll is often a bumpy ride but distinguishes itself by introducing a frightening new brand of serial killer, and by merely existing marks a breakthrough for Hungarian cinema. After all, how many Hungarian films have you seen lately? Kontroll’s strength is that many questions are offered, but not answered, and we are left to draw our own interpretations. While the movie does not always reach its desired destination, there’s plenty here to enjoy if you’re a fan of trips outside of the norm.