The hitman genre has been done to death. If cinema can be a reflection of the times we live in, and a recorded piece of history of what the filmmakers are concerned with at the time of inception and production, then it’s amazing any of us are still alive. When done well, the genre can be a lot of fun – as well as dramatic, escapist, cool and artful – but there’s just too many professional killers running amok in the movies.
So if every story in the genre has already been told, then why make a hitman film? For one, you could argue that about every single genre out there. There are no new stories. But there is always a new, inventive and/or clever way to tell a story. And cinema is nothing if not a referential medium, as all filmmakers constantly steal from (or to put it nicely, pay homage to) their heroes, repurposing and updating themes, shots, characters, etc. to suit the needs of their film in search of making something fresh, like a giant ball of clay that is constantly reshaped and changing in size.
While “Headshot,” the latest film from Thai genre auteur Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (the excellent “Last Life in the Universe”), is by no means original, it’s how the story is told that makes it special. Also, it’s just a great piece of stylish, badass neo-noir cinema. It’s part “Blast of Silence,” part “The Killer,” with elements of a ‘Bourne’-style on-the-run thriller and, in the film’s freshest contribution to the assassin genre, steeped in Buddhist philosophy. This is a film that takes time to consider the consequences of a life as a hired killer. Pen-Ek is concerned with not just the cool and entertaining aspects of this kind of movie (of which he delivers in spades), but also the nature and subjectivity of fate. Is life a series of random, bizarre coincidences? Or is there a puppet master pulling all the strings? Is one belief more meaningful than the other?
Things seem awfully familiar in the opening scene; an order is sent out for a hit on a politician. Tul (Nopachai ‘Peter’ Jayanama) receives the message and sets out to do his job, disguising himself as a Buddhist monk. He gets his man, but is shot in the head in one of the film’s many flat-out cool-looking shots, a falling POV on camera blood spatter. Awaking from a coma three months later and now seeing everything upside down (a nice, fairly subtle metaphorical touch, reminiscent of visual techniques used in "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"), Tul reflects on how and why he got to this point in his life.
Turns out he used to be a very good, incorruptible cop who landed in jail for refusing a bribe (and subsequently beating the shit out of the briber with a chair) seven years prior to his titular headshot. In jail, he becomes obsessed with an author known only as Demon. He reaches out to his favorite writer, who comes to prison to visit Tul, and offers him a job in his secret organization as a hitman (“We prefer the term assassination expert,” he says).
Demon believes that certain people – corrupt politicians, top tier drug dealers and those escaping punishment through legal loopholes – are better off dead rather than allowing Darwinism to take its “evil” course, and Tul comes to believe an eye for an eye is the only appropriate approach to obtaining justice, and thus begins his descent as a soulless, cold blooded killer-for-hire. Along the way through an awesomely convoluted back-and-forth-through-time storyline he meets a couple women and they get him thinking he may have made a misstep or two in life, and Tul seeks out redemption.
Pen-Ek, who goes by the nickname of Tom, not unlike the other leading filmmaker of the Thai new wave, Apichatpong Weerasethakul (he goes by Joe), is a gifted filmmaker, and we look forward to further exploring his body of work. He seems unabashed in his love of genre movies, and enjoys twisting their tropes like a pretzel to suit his thematic and narrative interests. He’s also not afraid of a bit of hard violence and ultra-stylish shot composition. In “Headshot,” he presents the story like a compulsive liar taking a polygraph test. The quick jolts of gunplay and action raise the excitement level, and then things calm down to a more contemplative approach.
The film’s striking visual style is perfectly in step with the narrative structure, balancing Thailand’s serene forests and rivers with cold cityscapes, and often shot in near darkness that’s always comprehensible. Thanks to DoP Chankit Chamnivikaipong’s masterful use of the Red camera, these scenes conjure the literal definition of film noir. “Headshot” proves the hitman genre still has a strong pulse. [A-]