Headshot, the new film from prominent Thai new-wave director Pan-Ek Ratanaruang, is a crisp crime thriller with a perfectly calibrated atmosphere.
Jayanama Nopachai is spectacularly intense as Tul, a contract killer for a mysterious organization who, at the outset of the film, is shot in the head, an injury that turns his vision of the world upside-down. Literally. Reflective of Tul’s malady is the film’s non-linear structure, which throws us backwards and forwards through a life full of revenge, redemption, nihilism and philosophy. Technically brilliant and narratively compelling, Headshot – despite some third act convolution and a rather silly dénouement – is a must-see film for fans of grounded Asian genre cinema, or the works of David Fincher (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) and Christopher Nolan (Inception).
Ratanaruang’s aesthetic and technical precision is virtually flawless, establishing immediately through controlled cinematography – and the low growls and vibrations of a minimalist score – the calculated, emotionless environment in which Tul carries out his profession. This is a beautiful looking film, in which every move of the camera feels loaded with intention. The utilization of point-of-view shots is particularly effective, slipping us into the heads of criminals and killers, allowing us to experience the apprehension of imminent violence and the panic of violence arrived. Games of cat-and-mouse between gunmen frequently occur at night, but the palette is never muddled or unclear; Ratanaruang wants total clarity of tension, and he gets it.
As Tul struggles to get back into business, flashbacks reveal clues to his past. Slowly, we learn that our hero wasn’t always a killer, but rather an honest cop railroaded by the system. After busting a drug ring with connections to a major politician, Tul is offered a bribe by the man’s lawyer, but turns him down cold. So instead, they set about discrediting him. Fans of film noir will smell trouble the moment he encounters – seemingly at random – a beautiful woman who whisks him away for a night of uninhibited passion. They’ll also be able to guess what happens the next: Tul wakes up, the woman has been murdered, and his fingerprints are all over the scene. The leggy dame, the hotel rendezvous, the frame-up: it’s all wonderfully classic hardboiled detective stuff, an influence that is also reflected in Tul’s rueful narration throughout.
The assembly of the narrative is based less on rigid internal formula of a Memento or Irreversible, and more on keeping audiences on their toes. It’s not overly confusing, however, and the viewer can keep track of which timeline they’re in through several clever visual devices: the length of Tul’s hair, a slash on his shirtsleeve, or – my favourite – the orientation (upside down or right way up) of the television in his Bangkok apartment. Unfortunately, the unconventional structure can’t quite cover up some basic logic gaps that start to crop up in the second half, around the time Tul finds himself on the run from a whole new set of evil-doers. Nor can it make certain revelations about said baddies – handled through a scene of woeful expository dialogue – seem any less unsatisfying or absurd.
Still, Ratanaruang’s talents shines through in the stunning visuals and nail-biting sequences of suspense. References to Buddhist teachings and apocalyptic philosophy don’t provide much food for thought, but they do further cement the film as an example of cinema-as-cool. And as an exercise in coolness, Headshot hits its target dead on.