Kontroll (2003) — The Cult Film You’ve Never Heard Of

The best way to start my review of this European film, is probably by mentioning my favourite scene. Half an hour into Kontroll, the film’s recluse hero Bulcsú runs into an old colleague of his. It is implied during their brief encounter that Bulcsú used to be hugely successful in his previous line of work. This scene is one of the rare moments when the audience is given a chance to understand Bulcsú’s detachment from everything, a detachment that’s been masterfully portrayed from the very first moment we meet him.

Feri: Your project, your work. Why did you not finish it?
Bulcsú: When for years you wake up knowing that you have to win every battle, every day. And you always have to prove that you’re the best. I began to fear… what if I’m not the best? I didn’t want to be afraid…

Bulcsú, played by one of the most promising Hungarian actors of his generation — Sándor Csányi, is the leader of a five-men team of shabby ticket inspectors working at the Budapest subway, disrespected and assaulted on a daily basis by commuters trying to evade paying for their tickets. Bulcsú leads a life of voluntary seclusion, spending his nights by roaming the subway systems and sleeping on train platforms, occasionally taking part in dangerous “rail run” dares. His world is soon turned upside down by a dark and mysterious figure, Shadow, who’s been pushing unsuspecting commuters in front of oncoming trains…

The tone is one of the the most important aspects of Kontroll, and Hungarian-American director Nimród Antal controls it as a seasoned pro despite this being his first feature film. The mood he creates is dark and haunting, but it’s gripping and intriguing rather than depressing. And while there’s a lot of humour here, it’s bitter-sweet. Kontroll is a work of symbolism and just like with a painting, the question to ask after seeing it should be what does it feel like, rather than what’s it about. When Bulcsú bumps into his colleague, I see a meeting of a world full of expectations (where success is defined by how much money you make) with a man who does not want to be a part of it any more. His recluse life in the subway system represents his state of mind, perhaps depression, out of which there’s seemingly no escape. By the end it’s up to the audience to decide what to believe — is Bulcsú and Shadow the same person or did the mysterious killer represent his inner conflict? Has he found a way out of his misery or has he given into his fears and died?

There are many films that define a generation, such as The Graduate or Fight Club, and for me Kontroll is just as important. The fact that Antal’s résumé post-Kontroll includes forgettable films like the remake of Predators (2010), Armored (2009) or Vacancy (2007) is saddening, but should not discourage you from giving it a chance. You’ll discover a hidden gem.

Originally published at filmaware.com on May 4, 2015.