'Kills on Wheels' ('Tiszta Szivvel'): Karlovy Vary Review

Kills On Wheels H 2016
Small but likeable in a scrappy way.

Hungarian director Atilla Till's seriocomic second feature sees three disabled men, including two in wheelchairs, become hitmen for a Balkan crimelord.

A young Hungarian in a wheelchair and his disabled roommate who can hardly walk strike up an unlikely relationship with a cantankerous contract killer paralyzed from the waist down in Kills on Wheels (Tiszta Szivvel), the second feature from director Attila Till (Panic). More of a dramedy than an outright irreverent comedy, this is a small but charming film that explores what life must be like for those who don’t have a lot to lose and for whom challenges are key. At home, this April release is currently the third-most-popular local title of the year, while after its international premiere at Karlovy Vary, these Wheels should cover some festival ground and also inspire a few sales, though mainly for home-viewing formats.

Zoli (Zoltan Fenyvesi) is a handsome 20-year-old whose spinal problems have him confined to a wheelchair and a specialized institution; his mother (Monika Balsai) is worried about coughing up the dough for surgery in Germany. The young man is into drawing comics and frequently does so with the help of his roommate, Barba (Adam Fekete), who looks more immature than the clean-shaven Zoli despite having a goatee and glasses. Barba — full nickname Barba Papa, according to the credits — can still walk and even drive, though every movement is an immense struggle for him.

The unlikely duo find themselves in a fight with Janos Rupaszov (Szabolcs Thuroczy), a man in early middle age with greasy long hair and an unkempt beard, also confined to a wheelchair. Unlike them, however, he also has money to burn, which he gets from doing "odd jobs" for Rados (Dusan Vitanovics), a crime lord from former Yugoslavia with a fondness for ferocious dogs and a list of targets longer than the life expectancy of Zoli if he’s not operated on soon. Clearly, no one expects a wheelchair-bound killer to show up when scores are being settled — especially since that often seems to happen in desolate wastelands that are not necessarily wheelchair-friendly — so Janos has turned this into an advantage, just like the fact he can’t feel anything from the waist down.

But rather than using these unusual advantages as fodder for out-and-out comedy, Till, who also wrote the screenplay, takes a more seriocomic route, anchoring the characters in a recognizable reality even as their world, with its violence, knives and guns, starts looking increasingly like a comic book or a crime saga. This is partly the result of casting non-professional actors who are actually disabled in the leads, thus ensuring a measure of authenticity. But it's also a clear choice on a screenplay level, with Till foregrounding the relationships among the characters and their physical struggles in ways that make them perhaps less riotously funny but all the more sincere and occasionally even insightful.

There are several showdowns between Rupaszov and his newly recruited aides — the three have a love-hate relationship throughout that is occasionally too convenient — that not only give the disabled men some challenges to sink their teeth into but that also instill the film with some tension. These sequences are well-staged and shot by cinematographer Imre Juhasz like any regular action sequence, handicaps be damned. A planned targeted killing in a crowded square, for example, recalls nothing less than the twitchy, almost paranoid energy of the famous opening sequence of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation.

The final twist of Kills on Wheels, which is actually more of a narrative pretzel than a straightforward 90-degree turn, feels rather odd. Till suddenly takes all of the pic’s carefully cultivated sense of documentary reality and tosses it out the window for a development that’s been more or less foreshadowed but nonetheless feels jarring because of the sudden shift in tone. That’s a minor problem, however, in a film that’s small and intimate but also very likeable in its scrappy way.

Venue: Karlovy Vary Film Festival
Production company: Laokoon Filmgroup

Cast: Szabolcs Thuroczy, Zoltan Fenyvesi, Adam Fekete, Monika Balsai, Dusan Vitanovics
Director-screenwriter: Attila Till
Producer: Judit Stalter
Director of photography: Imre Juhasz
Production designer: Panni Lutter
Costume designer: Andrea Flesch
Editor: Marton Gothar
Music: Csaba Kalotas
Casting: Daniel Timon
Sales: HNFF World Sales

Not rated, 103 minutes