a FILM COMMENT online exclusive
REVIEWED BY LAURA KERN
It's hard to imagine a more soul-sucking workplace than the netherworld of the subway. Kontroll, set entirely in the chaotic underground train system of Budapest, focuses on the (mostly) men whose jobs as ticket inspectors, or "controllers," force them to spend the majority of their waking life there, prowling the stations and rails. They are universally despised - and often physically and mentally abused - mostly by passengers who have no intention of paying, and those who just don't want to be bothered. Grime, vomit, urine, body parts scraped from tracks, and knife-wielding riders are also common features of a day's work.
As hellish as the setting may sound, it serves as the perfect backdrop for a film. Cigarette smoke and shadows, flickering fluorescent lights, winding tunnels, bright headlights illuminating pitch-dark tunnels, and a trippy costume party sequence contribute to the extraordinary atmosphere, which threatens violence and menace at every turn. Luc Besson's 1985 Paris-Metro-set Subway would be the obvious inspiration, but though both films share pulsating music and frenetic pacing, Kontroll is far more resonant. Via Bulcsú (Sándor Csányi), the most intriguing movie anti-hero to appear in awhile, the film touches upon questions of identity, morality, and the thin line between security and destitution. We first meet him as he wakes up on a subway platform, with his nose dripping blood-the beginning of a physical deterioration that steadily increases during the course the film. Bulcsú is completely self-destructive, a time bomb who thrives on "railing," a game of subway-train chicken, in which he competes against his co-workers; at the same time there is something genuinely vulnerable and strangely recognizable about him that it's all but heartbreaking to see his disarray. The details that surround him remain intriguingly ambiguous. Is he homeless? What is he hiding from? How did a once-successful professional (as we learn through an encounter with a former colleague) end up so low? Is he the madman who has been shoving passengers in front of trains? We hope for his salvation all the same, even if he neither desires nor deserves it.
Though Bulcsú is Kontroll's main attraction, the odd assortment of supporting characters give the film a memorable texture. His group of misfit workmates includes a narcoleptic, a wise old-timer, an eager young gun, and a goofy little man who serves mostly as comic relief. There's also Bootsie, a punk who terrorizes everyone on a regular basis. As Béla, an alcoholic train driver and Bulcsú's mentor, Lajos Kovács has incredible screen presence - his eyes exude the compassion buried beneath his own suffering. And as Béla's adorable, feisty, and slightly off-kilter daughter Eszter Balla also stands out as a passenger in a bear costume who forms an instant mutual attraction with Bulcsú.
If the film makes a misstep, it's the montage sequence in which the workers pay a mandatory visit to the company-assigned psychiatrist (in his underground office, of course). Further evidence of the characters' kookiness isn't necessary, and it's during this segment that the film lapses briefly into predictability. Otherwise, first-time director Nimród Antal delivers a fascinating, rock-solid debut-a surreal dream of a film that successfully blends elements of comedy, romance, tragedy, and suspense. A case study in the ominous, Kontroll probably has no business ending with a glimmer of hope, but you'll be glad it does. Riding the subway will never be quite the same after you've seen this one.
© 2005 by The Film Society of Lincoln Center