Kills on Wheels – a dark comedy that tackles assumptions about disability

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Kills on Wheels directed by Atilla Till follows the exploits of a wheelchair-using gang of assassins. Alison Wilde applauds the movies use of narrative and dialogue to scorn assumptions made of disabled people and the attempt to break new ground in cinema-making, whilst discussing the film’s flaws.

Photo of three male wheelchair-users on a road

Kills on Wheels

The first thing you probably need to know about this film is that it is no ‘Inside I’m dancing’, a film which still rates as one of the top three worst ‘disability films’ I have ever seen, not just for the excuses given for not employing disabled actors but also for its trite narrative, desexualisation of disabled men, and insidious messages reproving us for anger and disability activism.

Kills on wheels (a disappointing title it has to be said, though different from the original Hungarian title) has a few things in common with Inside I’m Dancing, such as its positioning as a buddy movie, having two main male characters as friends who seem to live in some kind of therapy facility (it was not entirely clear to me why it has such a therapeutic focus?). But the resemblance, happily, ends there, even if there may be echoes of good and bad cripple divides at times.

I was glad to see that disabled characters were cast in this film; two of the three main leads were disabled white men, Zoli (Zoltán Fenyvesi) and Barba (Adám Fekete). In this case, it added to the action, and some of the comedic moments, especially in seeing and identifying some of the minutiae of problems which are caused by environmental barriers.

Barba, who has cerebral palsy has a pronounced tremor, attempts to use a vending machine to buy something with the only money he has. The buttons are too small to hit accurately, which results in the wrong selection and an unwanted bag of pretzels. Whilst I found this funny as someone whose life is beset with such irritating and often disappointing encounters with the everyday environment, I can understand why others wouldn’t.

Some of the comedy moments, such as the slightly gratuitous emptying of a catheter in the street, made me wince rather than smile, not least because my sense of humour seems to stop at the lack of access to toilet facilities (for wheelchair-users and many others), and the embarrassing situations this can lead to.

Although I would recommend seeing the film I have some ambivalence about the story overall and the strength of the narrative i.e. whether it would work without the reliance on impairment tropes. I also question the use of a ‘frame story’, a story within a story, to tell this tale. The outer ’real’ story is told indirectly by the two main disabled characters, which centres on their creation of a comic strip/graphic novel. However the bulk of this film concentrates on the fiction created within this film’s ‘real world’ narrative. As such, I focus here mainly on the inner story because this is where most of the action lies. This is a shame as I found myself wanting the framing story to be more elaborate, and to have greater depth, especially as this is the one where the disabled actors lead.

I am guessing that the link between the two narratives may lie in the heroism of the third character Rupaszov (who is played very well by Szabolcs Thuróczy, although he is presumably a non-disabled actor) and the lessons Zoli learns from him. The links between outer and inner stories may encourage us to think that Rupaszov had been instructive in Zoli’s self-development, willingness to forgive, and to accept the (very understandable) need for therapeutic intervention. As Rupaszov is a character who is developed from Zoli’s own imagination this suggests that these more noble thoughts lie waiting within recalcitrant disabled people if we only search hard enough.

If I’m being picky I think Kills on Wheels leaves itself open to interpretations that the ‘real’ lives of Zoli and Barba are less fascinating, and perhaps less ‘actorly’ especially as they have more peripheral roles in the main narrative. The framing of the story and the use of actors in these ways, was too ambitious a strategy for a film which looks as if it aimed, consciously, to change representations of disability. It certainly lacks the intricacy and philosophical strengths of films such as Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals, or Christopher Nolan’s Inception. Nonetheless, the narrative played well with ideas of cure and the fixing of disabled bodies in both stories; it does this quite deftly, refusing to push the refusal or the desire for impairment remedies too far in either direction, with few judgements made by other characters on these ongoing discourses.

One thing I became impressed with early in the film was the effort, which was put into showing how many disabled people have very different interactions with time and space. There is one moment later in the film where speed is crucial for Zoli, to get out of the car to rescue Rupaszov from an imminent crisis. But they are both wheelchair-users, with limited movement: Rupaszov paralysed from the waist down, and Zoli, who is also unable to stand. We witness Rupaszov getting extremely frustrated about Zoli’s need to get his wheelchair out of the car, and put all the pieces together before preparing himself to get in it and wheel over to him. This is a slow process (especially when compared with other action movies), which leads Rupaszov to ask him if he’d also like to comb his hair before he eventually does something to help.

However, I also had some ambivalence with the frequency and amount of time spent on observing these two characters move, in physiotherapy, up hills in wheelchairs, and so on. While I think the provision of opportunities for staring at disabled people and learning about impairment-based limitations can be a valuable strategy, and is all too absent in many films, I found some of these camera shots rather long and a little laboured, almost as though the film-maker has a personal fascination with how disabled people get around and do things. It was not a surprise, then, to discover that, according to reviewer Alissa Simon (discussing director/writer Till), the screenplay “was inspired by his volunteer work with the disabled”’. So, as much as I enjoyed aspects of this film the so-called (if arguable) non-disabled gaze is evident.

The cover of a graphic novel shows a line drawing of the lead character

Still from Kills on Wheels

The comedy moments in Kills on Wheels are generally even-handed, e.g. as well as incidents such as the vending machine fail, we are encouraged to laugh at the bad guy who stabs Rupaszov in the leg and his subsequent bewilderment at Rupaszov’s indifference to the injury (he feels no pain). I welcome the opportunity to see disabled characters in more adventurous roles; Rupaszov is a hitman – confounding typical stereotypes of disabled men as emasculated and passive, in favour of depicting them as strong, if flawed, problem-solvers with the ability to skilfully navigate most of the barriers they have to face. Sadly, the most disappointing thing was that the films female characters were not afforded such fluidity, used almost as prosthetic devices (as David Mitchell and Snyder might say of disability in cinema). The women seemed to be there to fix the difficulties experienced by the male characters, and to act as a signifier for their sexual ‘normality’.

I have deliberately avoided discussing too much of Kills on Wheels plot for those of you who want to see the film. I believe it is worth seeing, not only because it features disabled actors but also because, as I have suggested, it does break some new ground using narrative and dialogue to scorn assumptions made of disabled people. It also features some lovely visual art as part of the ‘real world’ frame, which I’ll leave you to discover for yourself.

Although I have some doubts about elements of the narrative and the emphasis placed on some aspects of impairment, gender and disability (and feel diversity could have been considered more in casting) a film cannot do everything and I don’t think we should expect it to. Ultimately, although perhaps Kills on Wheels tries to do too much, lacking the simple elegance and more limited focus of, for example, Baby Driver, the film is likely to work well for some disabled people, especially those who seek disabled actors playing disabled roles.

Kills on Wheels was released theatrically in the UK & Ireland on 15 September 2017

2016 | 105 min. | 2.66:1 | Hungary | Action / Comedy / Drama | Colour | Hungarian (with English Subtitles) | Cert. 15 (TBC)