Kontroll is one of those all too rare films that is disappointing, not because it’s bad, but simply because it’s nowhere near as good as it should be. The debut feature from Nimród Antal has everything necessary for a great film; an intriguing premise, great characters with lots of depth, cool setting and atmosphere, some great style, and tons of energy. Unfortunately, the film never lives up its vast potential but consistently underperforms right through the lackluster ending.
Bulcsú (played quite ably by Sándor Csányi) eats, sleeps, and breathes underground. A worker for the Budapest subway system, Bulcsú and his motley crew of inspectors patrol the cars and stations, making sure that everyone has a ticket. Mocked and harassed by all of the passengers, and looked down upon by their colleagues, Bulcsú and his colorful co-workers are the black sheep, the misfits of the subway system. And there’s more pressure than usual on Bulcsú and Co. — a serial killer is roaming the subways, pushing unsuspecting patrons in front of oncoming trains and vanishing without a trace.
If nothing else, it can be said that Antal takes plenty of time to develop his characters, especially in Bulcsú’s case. Although it’s implied that he’s the best inspector working the underground, he’s a bit of a lone wolf. For some reason that we never learn, he has stopped living above ground, but instead wanders the caverns and tracks, even sleeping in abandoned subway stations. He also seems to be going a bit stir crazy, having strange visions and creepy encounters — and the strange young woman in the furry bear suit certainly doesn’t seem to be helping his mental state. Soon, his bizarre habits put him under suspicion of being the serial killer (which could’ve made for some mindbending psychological thriller-type stuff, another cool avenue the film avoids).
At first, I just thought Antal was biding his time, making sure we had something invested in the characters before all hell broke loose. Everything seemed to be heading up to a big showdown between Bulcsú and his crew, and the authorities, mocking co-workers, annoying passengers, and of course, the serial killer. And for that matter, Antal spent considerable time building up the serial killer into something nigh-supernatural, what with Bulcsú’s hellish dreams and all. However, there’s absolutely no payoff to all of this build-up whatsoever.
When the film finally does arrive at its climax, it’s the very dictionary definition of “under whelming,” yet another case of “That’s it?!?” followed by the credits (something that seemed to affect a number of Midnight Madness films this year). Furthermore, too many plot threads are simply left hanging and completely unexplained — be it Bulcsú’s past, the other members of his team (who have completely disappeared by the film’s final act), or the rest of the subway denizens — for the ending to be anything but frustrating.
Antal does throw in some exciting sequences — a chase sequence involving Bulcsú’s crew and a young punk named Tootsie that finds them tearing through subway stations and sending passengers flying was one of the funniest scenes I saw all festival long — but they’re few and far between. And while there are some hilarious scenes, usually involving scuffles with unruly passengers, they also feel a bit sparse.
The one thing that Antal consistently nails is the film’s visuals. He loves the subways of his film almost as much as the characters, and he enjoys showing every single fluorescent-bathed nook and cranny. The architecture of the subway system is fascinating, and Antal uses it to set up some great shots. However, Antal’s attention to every single little twist of subway system serves only to heighten the disappointment as well. He merely hints at a fascinating world, the one Bulcsú wanders through at “night” on his lonely walks. It’s a world where someone could disappear if they wanted to, could start a brand new life, and Antal never capitalizes on the mystery and magic of his setting as much as he could.
Usually, I’m used to a film overperforming, becoming so bloated and over-the-top that it loses cohesion or collapses under the weight of everything. It’s rarer for a film to underperform, but that’s exactly what happens with Kontroll. The film constantly feels stuck in a lower gear, and for all of the driving techno music and flashy editing, never seems to pick up any speed whatsoever — which is not something you want out of a so-called “Midnight Madness” movie. Or any movie, for that matter.