Private Investigations: Detective Stories and Identity in Attila Gigor's "The Investigator"

in 24th Warsaw Film Festival

by Laurence Boyce

(Warning: this review contains spoilers regarding plot details of The Investigator.)

Attila Gigor’s directorial feature debut The Investigator (A nyomozó) is a remarkable and unique take on the detective film that flips the genre on its head in a brilliantly assured manner.            

Tibor Malkáv works as a coroner, dealing with the unfortunates for whom one wrong step has ended in demise. And that’s the way that Tibor likes it, as he seems almost incapable of relating to anyone in real life. Aside from Edit, the girl he takes to the movies, the only person he seems to care about is his mother, currently lying in a hospital stricken with cancer. Yet he can’t save her as the operation is very expensive. And then a mysterious stranger enters his life and offers him a simple proposition: he will pay cash if Malkáv murders a complete stranger. Malkáv accepts but upon discovery that his victim may be more familiar than he originally thought, he begins to understand that coincidences rarely happen. So Malkáv, non-existent people skills and all, turns private investigator, probing his mysterious family past and finding out where the truth lies.            

Gigor has created a finely crafted film in which detail and subtlety combine with the blackest of humour to conjure up a singular atmosphere. On one level the film is simply (a very accomplished) homage to film noir of years past. The intriguing and complex storyline in which motivations are hidden and secrets revealed, the cast of grotesque characters (such as the creepy ‘Cyclops’ and the long lost sister) and locations such as the shadowy alleyway in which the murder will take place are given a new life in Gigor’s world. Yet, The Investigator is much more than a collection of ‘greatest bits of detective films from cinema history’ as it is also an intelligent examination of how people use stories (especially films) to construct their own identities and mythologies. Malkáv is a person who is basically Tabula Rasa. His lack of social interaction and etiquette has left him a blank slate. Given that one of his few pleasures seems to be going to the movies, it is their stories that give him the impetus to go on a journey to discover the truth. Malkáv uses what he’s learnt in the films to become what he thinks is the best detective (in one wickedly funny moment, someone comments that “You’re the first person I’ve talked to that acts like a real detective”). When he’s working out problems he does by running a film in his head, so at one point he talks to all the gathered suspects — whether alive or dead — to try and find out where his information will lead him. It’s all done with intelligence and wit and gives the entire film a wonderful depth. 

One of the towering achievements of the film is to make Tibor Malkáv a hero to the audience. Given his lack of ability to empathise with others and that fact that he is, in an audacious piece of storytelling, basically investigating a murder that he himself has committed, it’s amazing how ‘on-side’ we are with him throughout the movie. Kudos has to go to Zsolt Anger for his measured performance of Malkáv, which has already netted him an award for Best Actor at the Hungarian Film Week and — in the coming weeks and months — should net him many more awards from across the world.              

There is a couple of niggles: the film takes a while to get going. Admittedly, this is necessitated by the intricate story, but the pace suffers slightly because of it. The same goes for early scenes in which people meet with an untimely end in darkly comic situations (such as a drunk who goes to ‘play’ with the wolves in his local zoo; it doesn’t end well). Whilst bleakly funny, they seem superfluous to the rest of proceedings.                

But these are minor complaints in an otherwise audacious and refreshing feature film debut. Gigor himself is a talent to keep your eye on over the next few years whilst after watching The Investigator you may never watch a detective film in the same way again.

Laurence Boyce