Pen-ek Ratanaruang's Headshot is an antithetical thriller that easily morphs into a subdued, slate-grey crime noir. With a striking sense of ease and control, Ratanaruang steers his eighth feature through the paces of political, police and underworld manipulations, allowing it to nearly float to its uninhibited conclusion. Returning to the atmosphere of his 1999 film 6ixtynin9, Headshot looks down the short barrel of a pistol and displays a languid mood to a rich narrative that works just slightly outside of the box, albeit with ample bloodletting.
Tul is a hitman, or as his boss prefers, an "expert assassin." The film opens with a mysterious man at a typewriter preparing information on a political target. Tul picks up the instructions, and, in the first of many cycles of transformation, he shaves his head in preparation for the job. Disguising himself as a monk, with his gun hiding inside his alms bowl, Tul delivers a fatal shot to his target but not without receiving the life-altering blow of the film's title. In a coma for three months, Tul wakes to find his vision altered and his world literally turned upside down.
Headshot rolls out the centerpiece action right at the beginning and then organically dispenses with Tul's checkered past and his unraveling future. Flashbacks reveal that Tul came to Bangkok as a police officer, obsessed with Travis Bickle-like training. Virtuous to a fault, Tul is unwilling to bow to a corrupt politician and he finds himself on the other side of the law, questioning his ideals regarding justice. Tul turns to an ambiguous social philosopher named Demon who expounds ridding the world of its 'evil genes' by any means necessary.
Although bitter from the depravity he sees as both a cop and a crook, Tul sees a higher ground that is just out of his reach with every twist and turn delivered by Headshot. The title tempts two meanings: the obvious physical one, illuminated so well in the film's poster, and the more illusive but illustrative one of a portrait. In this case, it is a psychological portrait of Tul and his altruistic struggles in various social and moral strata. Tul finds solace in the disparate paths as cop, criminal and monk only to have his search twisted by the malaise he has created.
Buddhism is easily invoked when applied to philosophical films, but Ratanaruang references it a little too explicitly in Headshot not to acknowledge. There is no shortage of suffering and the analysis of the cause and effect. Tul's own afflictions cloud his perception until his head injury leads to a more pronounced and profound insight into the world. His cycles of violence, entertained in the film by its non-linear structure, are broken by his shot to the head, setting him on a path of unambiguous enlightenment, chasing the Four Noble Truths of a hitman.
But Ratanaruang uses a careful hand with his parables, largely leaving them on the back burner to simmer. Likewise, Tul is not a character that is so easily read. Ratanaruang is far more concerned with exploring a palette and a style under the pretense of genre, leaving many themes, spiritual or otherwise, just below the surface. Headshot relishes the dark, putting Tul in many situations where his nemesis lies in the shadows of a warehouse or a forest or his own mind. Tightly paced with a natural ebb and flow of action, the film Pen-ek Ratanaruang has created is nothing short of a unique shot in the arm for international thrillers. Picked up for US distribution by Kino Lorber, Headshot will be a welcome sight in arthouse theaters.
(Review originally published during the Vancouver International Film Festival in October 2011.)
Headshot opens in limited release in the U.S. on Friday, September 28; check official site for theater listings.