For a film billed as a thriller, Kontroll is mighty abstract. For some reason, I always had it in mind that Kontroll was about some supernatural killings happening in the Budapest subway system–so I’m glad to learn that it’s not. I’m also glad that after passing it by on the Videodrome shelves for several years, I finally gave the movie a shot because it was an eye-opener. Though I had no interest in Vacancy or Armored before, I’m now pretty excited about what Nimrod Antal is going to do with Predators. I suspect that Antal was hired for Predators because of his command of atmosphere in Kontroll but if he gets even a little of the comedy, suspense, and character work right with his biggest-profile project to date, we could be in for a sequel that outpaces the original.
The easy mashup reference for Kontroll is that it feels a lot like Danny Boyle and Timur Bekmambetov getting together to make a relatively FX-free subterranean head trip. The film features a Trainspotting-esque ensemble of likable subway ticket wardens who trapse around to the sound of techno music in a grimy underworld that wouldn’t feel too out of place in the Night Watch universe. Fine, I’m in. The downtrodden and mostly useless ticket inspectors spend too much time under the ground to have real people skills, and it’s clear that the job attracts folks who don’t quite function up above. No one can blame them–it’s a thankless and dangerous job–but no one is trying all that hard to make the situation better. The administration’s idea of improvement is a new, more menacing uniform, while the guys hopping trains seem to do anything they can to get through the day. When the subway system is plagued with a higher-than-usual rate of suicidal jumpers, the usually drab world of getting cussed at and spit on takes on a new level of real paranoia. But what makes Kontroll seem so fresh is the stuff that the movie is NOT about.
From here on, there will be SPOILERS.
The story kicks off with a passenger getting thrown out in front of a speeding train. The suits think that the victim is a ‘jumper’ but when more bodies pile up, they begin to look for someone who might be responsible. Enter Bulcsú, the most put-upon of the put-upon ticket inspectors who is clearly better than all of this. He’s too smart and too solid to be toiling with the misfits and idiots on his crew, but he never even leaves the subway tunnels, opting instead to sleep or pass out on the platforms after the last train has passed. As a protagonist, he’s not as much moving the plot forward through his own actions as he is getting drawn forward inevitably by what’s going on around him. A rival crew insults him so he has to stand up for himself. A co-worker on another crew loses it and kills a customer and Bulcsú tries to intervene becuse no one else is capable. Even when he meets a cute girl dressed in a pink bear costume, she has to do all the work to get him to follow her for a makeshift date.
Bulcsú’s inertia is deeply existential, and in a brief encounter with a former colleague from the real world, we get a sense that he used to be someone else–that he still could be if he could only work himself out of his funk. The film doesn’t make any of his background really clear, but it doesn’t need to in order to use his stasis as a metaphor. The world passes by Bulcsú and when he comes into contact with it, it all feels a little disorienting. The film jumps from a tense scene reflecting his paranoia about a hooded killer to a comedic bit with his slapstick crew to a montage of the mundane daily work that they do and it all feels just like going through depression.
With depression, there are moments when the fog lifts and something makes you laugh. There can be stretches when whatever is happening in the world seems to be happening without you, but none of it matters anyway. Occasionally there are bursts of anger or self-loathing. But all of those things poke out of the general haze and then retreat back–and that’s where Bulcsú is–stuck in the haze.
The film is not really about a killer, in fact I’d argue that there isn’t one. The hooded pusher is just Bulcsú’s paranoid delusion, and when he’s finally able to outrun it, he’s free to venture back out to the surface. It’s not really about the subway either–although the maze of tunnels and buzzy flourescent-lit platforms provides the perfect metaphorical setting for a dark, cyclical and isolated mind. It is instead about what it feels like to be burdened with depression, riding around in circles without the willpower to do anything about it. The fact that we don’t know specifically why he’s in such a state makes him even more relatable. We’ve all been there, or will be there some day where a tragic loss, a regrettable mistake, a series of missed opportunities, or maybe just the intangible existential angst takes hold and blocks out the light of possibilities. I don’t think that Kontroll is about anything much more than this, and that makes it one hell of an achievement.