Notes from the underground

Hungarian subway is the setting for a tense psychological thriller

Jul 13, 2005 at 12:00 am

Set entirely underground in Budapest’s labyrinthine subway system, Kontroll is a lush and atmospheric existential thriller with a grimy punk sensibility. Director Nimród Antal takes full advantage of this seedy but fascinating underworld of claustrophobic tunnels, sickly fluorescent lights and passengers who scurry down endless escalators to lurk in shadows like nervous rats waiting for the trains. At the center of this Dante-like netherworld is Bulcsú (Sándor Csányi), a grungy, charismatic ticket “controller” who battles rival inspectors, hostile scofflaws and a shadowy serial killer who shoves random passengers into the path of oncoming trains.

The controllers are part low-level tax collector, part security officer. Unable to enforce their authority, they spend much of their time ineffectually harassing fare jumpers. The disdain and scorn passengers show for these hapless officials creates terrific moments of dark comedy. A hilarious scene, where Japanese tourists snap photos of an inspector while ignoring his increasingly pleading requests for their tickets, highlights the futility of the controller’s life.

Bulcsú (pronounced bull-chew), a crew leader, lives in self-imposed exile, hiding from a mysterious past. Sleeping on empty platforms and eating out of vending machines, he embraces his subterranean isolation as a metaphor for his life and never ventures above ground. His motley crew of misfits and has-beens offers easy camaraderie, and Russian roulette-style races along the rail tracks provide cheap thrills.

Csányi, who looks a bit like actor Chris Noth, brings mournful nobility to the otherwise scruffy Bulcsú. As the film progresses, he’s repeatedly beaten to a pulp, yet remains defiant and engaging. He’s a man so wounded by the topside world that he’s learned to hide his fear and anger behind a deceptively calm facade. When he encounters a rebellious and beautiful young girl (Eszter Balla) in a teddy-bear costume, however, he begins to yearn for life in the real world.

Antal (who grew up in Los Angeles before moving to Hungary) confronts the isolation and anxiety of contemporary urban living with a potent mix of black humor, unnerving suspense and antisocial drama. He combines the high gloss of Hollywood with European art-house style to great effect. Savvy enough to balance the film’s bleaker sensibilities with humor and suspense, his unique visual style and throbbing electronic sound track will get your blood pumping. The film features a potent mix of both ridiculously comical chases and sudden violence. Bulcsú’s eventual confrontation with the dark-hooded subway killer, a literal and metaphorical visage of death, has all the elements of the best suspense-thrillers.

The film, however, is not without flaws. While the episodic structure accentuates the controller’s soul-deadening routine, several of the scenes lose focus and the plot comes off as haphazard and undercooked. Similarly, many of the characters, as quirky and engaging as they are, come and go to little effect.

Where Kontroll distinguishes itself is with its compelling lead actor and absolute authenticity of place. Antal’s inventive direction takes you someplace you’ve never been and offers up a seductively tense film experience. Unlike the subway, Antal may not always reach his intended destination, but the thrill of the ride more than makes up for it.


Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main St., Royal Oak; 248-263-2111).

Jeff Meyers writes about film for MetroTimes. Send comments to [email protected].