Sometimes you read the set-up to a film and think, "That sounds great." Take Headshot, the new Thai action-thiller from Pen-ek Ratanaruang:
When honest cop Tul seizes a drug den belonging to a powerful politician, his good days are numbered. Refusing to be paid off to keep the case quiet, Tul is set up for a murder he didn't commit and lands in prison, where he is offered a job by a philosopher who argues that evil must be weeded out if good is to survive. Out of prison and deeply disillusioned, he takes the job as a Robin Hood-esque hit man, targeting the corrupt and powerful in Thai society. After a job goes wrong and he is shot in the head, he wakes up to find that he sees everything upside down. Suddenly, nothing is what it seems, and Tul must exact revenge according to his own moral code.
Unfortunately, Headshot's not much of an action movie or a thriller. It's meant to be a contemplative and philosophical arthouse assassin movie. I can do contemplative, I can do philosophical, and I love arthouse movies, but if there's one thing I'm not great at, it's combating boredom.
When I'm bored by a film, I tend to become hypercritical, like every decision made by the filmmaker or a character gets an additional nagging "Why did you do that?" or "Why didn't you do that?" every couple of minutes. In Headshot, Tul is initially disgraced when he supposedly murders a prostitute. After spending the night together, he finds her covered in blood in the bathtub. He lands in prison when he beats down the person who set him up. After a few months in the clink, he gets a visitor. It's the prostitute he supposedly murdered, and she's doing well.
Now, okay, so she's been alive all along and was unharmed. Why didn't Tul check her vitals when he found her in the tub? He's a good cop -- we see him in action being smart and with it -- so why the sudden lapse in judgment? Rather than check her pulse, see if she's breathing, and verify the wound, he rushes around scrubbing his prints from everything. It just doesn't make any sense.
There's another odd lapse in Tul's judgment later on. In that scene, he can't seem to remember if he just shot a guy twice or seven times. Maybe's he's not as good a cop/hitman as I thought.
On the note of not making sense, the non-linear approach to telling the story early on is sloppy. We jump around in time between the present and the past, and I can't quite discern the reason the choice was made. This sort of odd architecture doesn't make the film more interesting, partly because the choice seems arbitrary, and partly because Headshot is so glacially paced. I can handle slow, but I feel like the slowness needs to be gripping, and Headshot is a movie that just didn't grab me. And there's a looming melody played through much of the film. It's supposed to be mysterious and sinister, but I just found it repetitive.
This negative reaction the film probably has a lot to do with expectations. To read the synopsis and to watch the trailer for Headshot leads you to believe it's something entirely different. All of the action in the film is in the trailer, though a lot of the incomprehensible wandering and coincidence is left out. I sort of want to give Ratanaruang's other films a chance, because maybe there's something resonant in those that I just couldn't find in Headshot.
The whole "seeing the world upside down" concept is used to little effect. It's mostly thematic rather than visually compelling. To be honest, I'd love to watch the big, dumb, action-packed remake of this film. The remake would do something unique and visually interesting with the idea of the world turned upside down in the mind.
The meditative, philosophical part of Headshot feels unexplored. There's some brooding and seething, there's some peace and tranquility, but I don't think that comes across in the finished film. Headshot was adapted from a novel, and I'm thinking a lot of the philosophy was left on the page. It's hard to translate musings on human nature onto film. The snippets we get are from Tul's brief moments of narration -- like the non-linear storytelling, it's just kind of tossed in there -- and from his time as an actual monk.
Though to be fair, it seems like Buddhist thinking in action or semi-action movies is something I haven't quite gotten. Maybe I just won't. I remember watching Running on Karma from Johnnie To and Wa Ka-Fai a couple years ago. It's another Buddhism-infused action film. It's got a lot more action than Headshot, and it's far weirder, which at least kept me watching. (Buddhist monk turned professional body builder can read a person's past and karma, and decides to help a female cop.) I love Johnnie To's films, but something about Running on Karma kept me at a distance. Maybe the same sort of thing is going on with Headshot -- my sensibilities aren't calibrated for Eastern Buddhism on film.
I read a description of Headshot that likened it to an existential hitman noir, a label much cooler than the finished film was. The elements are there, sort of. Tul wonders about genetic predispositions toward evil, and maybe you get a bit of Jean-Paul Sartre's idea of the existence of a person preceding his or her essence. But is it enough to keep me hooked? There's some angst in Headshot, but really, I could feel more angst welling inside me as I was watching it.