In the opening shot of Kontroll, we descend with a citizen down a very long escalator into the depths of Budapest's Metro subway system. We'll remain in these underground spaces for the next two hours, our journey now in the hands of first-time director Nimrod Antal, who sets his story amid the strange and brutish milieu of the subway's lowest caste of workers: "control" agents, undercover ticket inspectors who patrol trains and stations demanding passengers provide proof of fare.
Bulcsíº (Sándor Csányi), a soulful young man who has left some other life behind, heads a motley crew of inspectors -- one's a near idiot, another a narcoleptic. Ticket inspectors are objects of derision and contempt, so in Antal's slightly unreal story the only people who take the job are the marginal and disenfranchised, the sorts who revel in its unpleasantness. Bulcsíº even sleeps underground on the empty platform, and Antal provides little evidence that the other men have above-ground lives.
Their world is fraught with boredom, irritation, even danger. The sprawling subway is a dirty, noisy labyrinth whose dark corners and corridors are barely mitigated by low-level fluorescent lighting. With some verve, Antal effectively conveys the otherworldliness of a transportation network most users simply pass through numbly; indeed, his film suggests that such a grim place can become territory, fiercely protected and embraced by even its disgruntled caretakers.
As such, Kontroll has an enjoyable dreamlike quality, punctuated by bursts of action and a thumping techno soundtrack. Antal was raised in America, and Kontroll is filled with echoes of films that surely influenced the young filmmaker: Trainspotting, the moody night visions of Scorsese, the amped-up fraternity of Tarantino, the 1979 subway classic The Warriors, as well as the trippy Euro vibe of art-cult hits like Diva and Run Lola Run.
But at nearly two hours long, Kontroll lacks a strong narrative hook to link its disparate elements into one truly satisfying ride. It's sort of a thriller, a bit of a love story, definitely a black comedy and probably a meditation on this modern life (and maybe even an allegory). The few narratives arcs -- sketches really, not fully developed stories -- just barely intersect. What to make of a young woman in a bear suit, a philosophical train driver, a prankster and a hooded figure who might or might not be pushing people under trains? Like the subway itself, Kontroll might just be a journey that loops back on itself without really going anywhere. But it's a ride that passes through some interesting stops. In Hungarian, with subtitles.