Tunnel Vision: Kontroll, a flashy Hungarian subway thriller.

Running thoughts on movies and their makings.
April 4 2005 6:04 PM

Tunnel Vision

Kontroll, a flashy Hungarian subway sort-of thriller

Watching the unhygienic Hungarian quasi-thriller mood-piece Kontroll (ThinkFilm), I felt as if I hadn't changed my underwear in weeks. Certainly that appears to be the case with the protagonist, Bulcsú (Sándor Csányi), who has dropped out of society and now sleeps on grotty subway platforms. He hasn't taken the long, long escalator from this labyrinthine network of tunnels to the street in months. By day, Bulcsú works as a ticket inspector (or "controller")—someone who rides the subways and demands (more or less at random) to see people's tickets. (Paying for one's trip in Budapest is evidently a matter of trust, which is odd in a city that teems—and I speak from first-hand observation—with pickpockets.) At night, Bulcsú shares his residence with at least one other soul: a cowled phantom of the subway who pops up, almost supernaturally, to shove passengers onto the tracks and into the path of oncoming trains. Could he be Bulcsu's doppelgänger?

This is the first feature written and directed by Nimród Antal, who hurtles out of the gate with nerve-jangling confidence. His chase sequences blend great fast Steadicam motion with angled close-ups, inducing at once both vertigo and claustrophobia. The balance of whoosh to drama is a little skewed. But if Antal has some of Luc Besson's empty flash, he also loves to apply the brakes, cross-cutting—in Altmanesque fashion—among Bulcsu's shambling platoon of misfit controllers as they attempt to extract tickets (or payment) from hostile, wheedling, or uncomprehending passengers.

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The mix of slickness, scruffiness, and scuzziness can be borderline unpleasant: Kontroll features many characters with greasy hair, blood blisters, and unsightly skin conditions. For no discernible reason, Bulcsú himself begins to bleed from several different orifices, which is particularly off-putting when he becomes a romantic figure, courting a lovely, big-eyed waif in a bear costume. As in many Eastern European films that get distributed in the United States, the whimsy leavens the harshness, the harshness darkens the whimsy, and the overall effect is to give you the warm-and-fuzzies plus a sour stomach. I'm not sure what Kontroll adds up to, but if you're looking for a rackety journey into the bowels of urban life, this is your movie.

Congratulations to Joe Morgenstern, one of the class acts in film criticism, on winning the Pulitzer Prize for his work in the Wall Street Journal. What a great way to cap off a career that included a marriage to Piper Laurie and a couple of years writing scripts for Law & Order. Nice guys do finish first, even if they're critics... 3 p.m. PST

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

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