There’s no prison riot like a wheelchair prison riot, and from the opening moments writer/director Attila Till’s Kills on Wheels makes it clear that it has no intention of abiding by the rules too often observed in cinematic convention without question or challenge, that disabled characters should be peripheral, that they should be depicted as noble and stoic, that they should remain at all times convenient.
It’s three years since the accident when former fireman János Rupaszov (Szabolcs Thuróczy) broke his back when a floor collapsed under him. He lost his job, he lost his girlfriend, Évi (Lídia Danis), he lost his temper and he went to prison for it. Now he’s out and in rehabilitation, building his strength, but fury is not enough to make his legs work.
If Zolika and Barba (Zoltán Fenyvesi and Ádám Fekete) cope with their disabilities better, it’s only because they have had their whole lives to become accustomed it; Zoli at least can walk short distances after a fashion before returning to his wheelchair but Barba’s progressive condition is slowly killing him.
Writing and illustrating a comic book together, the fantasy which allows them to escape from their trapped lives, distraction comes to Zoli and Barba when they become witnesses to Rupaszov’s bloody rendezvous with four thugs who underestimate him, thinking one man in a wheelchair will be a pushover but instead the pair now find themselves accomplices as Rupaszov acts as hitman in the rivalry between two local gangsters.
Winner of five Hungarian Film Awards and Hungary’s official entry into for Best Foreign Language Film at the 89th Academy Awards though it was not eventually nominated, Kills on Wheels (Tiszta szívvel) is unusual in that two of the lead actors, Fenyvesi and Fekete, are genuinely disabled yet are featured in primary roles which are uncompromising and far from stereotypical.
Each of the central trio determined and stubborn in their own ways, surgery could help Barba but he refuses it, too proud to accept the charity of the father who abandoned him and his former Olympian mother Zita (Mónika Balsai), while Rupaszov’s relationship with his volatile employer Rados (Dusan Vitanovics) could erupt into violence at any time.
A strangely uplifting drama with a streak of vicious black comedy where most directors would offer sentimentality, the trio never define themselves by their wheelchairs even though others invariably do, using their effective invisibility to their advantage when they carry out a hit in broad daylight in a crowded square – who would ever suspect the man who can’t even walk from the scene of the crime unaided?
Deftly navigating the action and emotion from the heartbreak of Évi’s wedding to the inconvenience of a steep uphill getaway, Till draws performances as complex and real as the leads of any more conventionally commercial buddy movie if not more so, and despite the huge hurdles they have to overcome and their actions and questionable line of work Rupaszov, Zoli and Barba are hugely likeable, and certainly nicer than the people they are killing.
Kills on Wheels is on general release from Friday 15th September