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‘Headshot’ is a disjointed collection of great ideas

Written by Pen-ek Ratanaruang
Directed by Pen-ek Ratanaruang
France/Thailand, 2011

At the outset of Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s thriller Headshot, hitman Tul (Nopachai Jayanama) dresses as a Buddhist monk in order to do a job. In the process of executing that hit, he is shot in the head, and upon awakening he sees the entire world upside down. Given that description, one might expect a film that is daring both in its visuals and its philosophy, but the end product doesn’t quite make it to that level.

Although there are upside-down shots scattered throughout the movie, for the most part the cinematography is spare and straightforward. This removes much of the thrill from the action scenes, during which the entire concept of Tul seeing the world upside down seems to be forgotten. This film will occasionally have a strong noir moment – a bracing torture sequence will be difficult to forget – but it doesn’t string enough of them together to be truly engaging.

In the realm of philosophy, Headshot has better footing. Ratanaruang has described his film as a “Buddhist noir,” and the presence of a few yellow robes is not the only reason for this. The screenplay spends considerable effort in tearing down Tul’s cop worldview, leaving him convinced that there is no natural justice and that the world is brutish and random (a central tenet of Buddhism). The filmmakers effortlessly guide Tul into a search for enlightenment, without his even knowing that is what he’s looking for.

Headshot is reminiscent of a few of Takeshi Kitano’s not-so-great efforts: it has a good grasp of how to make an audience jump with the harsh sound of an unexpected gunshot, and a few of its scenes will linger long after it’s over, but it can’t keep an audience riveted for its full running time. Whenever it builds up a head of steam, there’s always one scene which falls flat and breaks the momentum. Still, its best moments mark Ratanaruang as a filmmaker whose next film should be eagerly awaited.

Mark Young