Kills On Wheels (Tiszta szívvel)

Hungary (2016) Dir. Attila Till

While Hollywood is trying to redeem itself following outcries of its lack of diversity in representing gender, race and sexual minorities in its films, the rest of the world is not only already way ahead of them but is also giving screen time to another overlooked section of society – the disabled.

On the rare occasion mainstream cinema do featured people with disabilities, more often than not they are portrayed by able-bodied actors – but not in Europe. Ukrainian film The Tribe features an all-deaf cast and is performed entirely in sign-language, whilst this bold Hungarian drama features main leads with genuine physical disabilities.

Zolika (Zoltán Fenyvesi) and Barba (Ádám Fekete) are best friends in a care home for the disabled, working together on a comic book about a paraplegic former firefighter. Barba has mild Cerebral Palsy whilst Zolika has a severe spinal issue that, if not treated, will permanently compromise his already limited mobility. The operation to help is too expensive for Zolika’s mother Zita (Mónika Balsai) but Zolika refuses to accept payment from his estranged father in Germany.

After being released from prison, paraplegic Rupaszov (Szabolcs Thuróczy) shows up at the care home for rehabilitation befriending Zolika and Barba and taking them out for a night on the town. To make ends meet Rupaszov works as a hitman for Serbian crime lord Rados (Dusan Vitanovic) who is living in fear of another crime lord, and recruits Zolika and Barba to help pull of his hits, which they then dramatise in their comic book.

The title of this film is accurate in that wheels are involved in the killings but doesn’t fully represent everything director Attila Till presents here. If anything this is more of a human interest/character study of the disabled, eschewing the usual sympathy route to portray their daily lives as normally as possible.

In other words, much like an animation, we forget the cast are physically and mentally impaired, the wheelchairs and physical traits become part of the fabric and almost go unnoticed after all. The key is in presenting the characters as normal people capable of performing normal activities just like the rest of us, but with added obstacles, facing each one with determination, self-assurance and dignity.

Any satirical or black comedy mileage likely to be exploited through such scenarios is wisely avoided since this would negate the positive image of handicapped people Till is propagating here. If there is any humour, it comes from the characters themselves, in the same way any sympathy or empathy comes from the situational complexities of their lives.

Zolika’s impasse with his mother over funding of the operation is his main drama, Zita’s vain attempts to explain why his father left them when Zolika was a baby falling on deaf ears. Rupaszov has his own personal concerns, being trying to win back his nurse ex-girlfriend Evi (Lidia Danis) who is about to marry another man. Till reassures us that this fall out has nothing to do with Rupaszov’s wheelchair but the distance his jail term put between them.

Barba is free from such domestic or romantic distractions in his life, his one damaging foible being the need to spray himself with deodorant (over his clothes) every time he gets excited or nervous. Despite his Cerebral Palsy affecting his physical dexterity, Barba the resident driver of the group and has a very astute, creative mind – as does Rupaszov, whose mission would be less successful without their input.

Where the script is as its strongest is in showing that being in a wheelchair is less a detriment and the perfect cover for committing an assassination in public. One major scene illustrates just that, providing perhaps the highlight of the film on visual level with its nail biting tension created through tight editing and deft handling of the post shooting chaos comparable to any action thriller. And while the victim’s bodyguards are looking high and low for the gunman, Rupaszov quietly slips away in his wheelchair unnoticed.

Another nice visual flourish is the way Till uses the illustrations from the comic book by means of segueing from one scene to another involving Rupaszov, but this doesn’t detract from the seriousness of the drama or make the violence any less impactful. Discrimination or abuse towards the handicapped is left to the thuggish criminals instead of thoughtless members of the public but is no less hard to watch.

Casting two non-professional, real life disabled people might seem a huge risk but it is one that pays off, not just politically but because they can act too. Activist and social media favourite Zoltán Fenyvesi is the intense one as Zolika, not letting his condition hamper his quality of life or his outlook, creating a unique chemistry with Ádám Fekete as Barba, a budding writer-director in the making who is dipping with charisma despite his handicap.

Established character actor Szabolcs Thuróczy is not disabled but he is very convincing in the role of Rupaszov, while carrying the heavy load of the acting as a gruff, hard bitten tough guy with a chip on his shoulder that hides a decent man trying putting his life back together. Apparently Till had Thuróczy workshop with his co-stars on acting and they make for a fun trio to watch.

The message is refreshing clear – don’t wallow in self-pity about your disability or expect others to feel sorry for you and enjoy your life to the max as much as you can. Till also reminds us not to underestimate handicapped people either at our risk, perhaps through an extreme example but at least it gets our attention and makes us think.

By avoiding the usual sentimental clichés and sympathy hunting plot beats associated with films of this nature, Kills On Wheels presents a provocative but, more importantly, uplifting and human representation of the difficult subject of disabilities. The title might be misleading but the lesson is absolutely on target.