Finally got to see Kontroll, which is now playing in what must be San Francisco's tiniest film screen - not just at the Opera Plaza but in the OP's smallest "screening room" (but, as my friend remarked, hey, it's still several times larger than my TV screen). Nimrod Antal's first makes for an impressive debut. The Hungarian film is set among hapless subway fare inspectors of Budapest (one of the world's oldest subway systems, which contributes to the film's haunting atmosphere), and fairly effortlessly shifts from dark comedy to mystery and, in the film's last section, pretty near horror. By mixing genres, the film teeters precariously on the verge of disjointedness, but is so consistent and strong on atmosphere and pacing that it scarcely matters.
There are some terrific set pieces and scenes, incuding several of the obligatory but still exciting subway tunnel chases, but what makes the film special is the cast of characters, very distinctly Hungarian in outlook and face - from Bela the alcoholic but sweet conductor (who has a great moment when dining by himself in an out of service rail car) to the whipped cream stalker to the narcoleptic inspector to the main character, Bulcsu, who is afraid of or avoiding the above ground world, for reasons never really explained. Then there's the adorable Eszter Balla, dressed in a fuzzy bear costume (presumably from whatever job she'd just been laid off from, though the details are never given, nor should they) - though it's a bit of a fantasy leap to accept that she'd be attracted to the bloodied, unwashed hulk that is Bulcsu by the end.
Another memorable sequence is the montage of inspectors unburdening their deflated consciousness at the psychologist's office, a bit of comedy relief before the film gets nerve-jangling again.
On a few occasions Antal seems to be channeling (Trainspotting / and other stylized "young" European films) in editing matched with pulsating music, and in one slightly cheesy slo-mo shot of the main characters walking towards us, but overall the film's style/cinematography is consistently inspired throughout - the confined setting, as it's done with quite a few other films, manages to beget more creativity. I did find myself wishing to see above ground Budapest, a city I'm not at all familiar with, but that, apparently, is not this film. Kontroll is purely subterranean from start to finish.
Ultimately, the film's raggedness suits it, and it is the hangdog cast of characters who will remain in my memory.
Plus, it was unsettling enough to make me wary of taking the subway home afterwards, to the point of being creeped out while waiting that someone could come behind me and push me into the path of a speeding train. The film may work best as a black comedy, but obviously something of the horror element works, too.