“Mirage” extends the surreal fillips of Hungarian director Szabolcs Hajdu’s prior features via an intriguingly offbeat premise, based on a short story by the nation’s late literary great Sandor Tar. But the balance between the straightforward and the cryptically strange proves somewhat disappointing in this stylistically assured effort, because the fairly conventional thriller windup makes a red herring of the parabolic-puzzle notes sounded earlier. This Hungarian-Slovakian co-production is certainly festival bait, but commercial placements are likely to sputter the farther it gets from home turfs.
Globe-trotting thesp Isaach De Bankole, also an exec producer here, plays the mysterious African stranger with cool threads and an unflappable demeanor who incongruously turns up in a podunk hamlet in the Hungarian region of Puszta. As locals gawk, he asks to be taken to “the tavern,” which involves a long single-car train ride even farther afield, during which the elderly conductor simply expires. After being briefly arrested for no clear reason, he’s rescued by an emissary from his true destination.
That would be an even more remote farmstead ruled by Cisco (Razvan Vasilescu) and a trio of younger louts who roam around on horseback with machine guns. Other men are here more or less voluntarily, we eventually realize, having come to hide out from the law for their individual reasons. But they’re treated like slaves in a prison-camp-style environment, made to perform not just typical farming tasks but also gnarlier ones — like buying anonymous corpses trucked in from who knows what criminal underworld. Further, the only woman here (the helmer’s spouse and regular femme lead, Orsolya Torok-Illyes) slips our protag a note informing that the bullying creeps here simply showed up one day to seize her property (and Cisco her body). She begs him to eradicate the plague that’s befallen her.
Instead, the man, whom we now know is a footballer from the Ivory Coast named Francis, hightails it out of there under cover of night. Wandering lost for days in the vast, featureless surrounding prairie, he’s hauled back, at which point Cisco realizes the runaway is hiding a large amount of cash in a soccer ball. Things deteriorate further from there, leading to a climactic every-which-way shootout.
Looking at least two decades younger than his 57 years, De Bankole (of numerous Jim Jarmusch pics, “Casino Royale” and the recent “Calvary”) brings a centering charisma as this man of few words but numerous hidden resources. The vaguely Western feel and the script’s long resistance to providing any explication also make “Mirage” seem slyly, unpredictably promising for a while. Until, that is, we realize there’s nothing all that mysterious here. (Even less so if you know that, after communism’s fall, such criminal “occupations” did actually afflict abandoned and/or remote Hungarian farms for a few years.)
The result is still diverting enough to the end (which seems a nod to “Shane”), but by then feels like a long windup to a shrug-off. Hajdu does much better establishing an unsettled, faintly black-comedic atmosphere than he does handling the eventual action, which ought to delver more punch for all the bodies piled up. Heightening that buildup (and perhaps deepening that letdown) are ace contributions in all departments, with particularly flavorful ones from Andras Nagy’s lensing and Yank jazz percussionist Billy Martin’s original score.