After arresting the brother of a powerful politician for trafficking in drugs, a good cop named Tul finds himself the target of a powerful attorney who wants to discredit him. Tul handles this in a relatively straightforward way – he beats the lawyer nearly to death and is sent to prison to rot. Then Tul receives a visit from a mysterious stranger who wants him to become a hit man for an organization dedicated to cleaning up the corruption in the Thai government. For a time, this works, until Tul is shot in the head and starts seeing everything upside down. When you are viewing the world as if for the first time, it’s only natural that you may have a change of heart about your life of violence. And that you may try and get out. And that your enemies may not let you.
As a fan of film noir, I am always interested in seeing how other cultures approach the genre. There is something musical about an international noir film – like listening to a jazz musician cover an old standard to great effect. I loved the way that Headshot immediately established the traditional conventions of the genre – the movie opens on a man sitting in front of a typewriter, a drink and a cigarette at the ready. Even the title credits, typewriter imprints blurred and flickering slightly out of focus, conveyed that the filmmakers had their heart set on making a traditional genre film. And if you’re wondering about the sparkling dialogue, constant rainfall, and the presence of a femme fatale, don’t worry, they’re there too. The musical improvisation, if you will, comes from the role of corruption within the Thai government and the part that Buddhism plays in the story. The latter comes as a surprise – or doesn’t, if you consider the fact that 95% of the population of Thailand is Buddhist – but adds an interesting layer to Tul’s character.
With this in mind, it should be no surprise that there is also an interesting morality play at the center of Headshot. Tul works for a man who calls himself Satan, a doctor who fears that natural evolution favors the cruel and that only evil men are capable of passing their lineage on. He employs Tul to help cull the evil men of the world, as a kind of artificial evolution intended to leave room for the righteous. At one point, a character says to Tul, “There are only two types of people that carry guns – cops and crooks. You’re not a cop, so you must be a crook.” This, to me, speaks to the essence of the genre. No matter how noble the intentions of the antihero, at the end of the day there are only two types of people that carry guns, and the leads in noir are very rarely cops. Tul may have been a good man at one point, but with a series of brutal murders, his soul is forfeit. He spends much of the movie trying to gain it back.
As much as I enjoyed the characters and the loving attention to detail, I did walk out feeling like the movie had left something on the table. My disappointment in Headshot lies in how little they explored the visual aspect of seeing upside down. While we do see several shots through the eyes of Tul, most of the movie takes place in the third person, and the potential narrative issues arising from his unique view of the world are relatively absent. I had hoped that Headshot would act as a visual version of Memento, eschewing narrative clarity for a bizarre take on the look of film noir. Instead, the movie concerns itself mostly with the development of Tul’s character. While it hardly seems fair to criticize a movie for not doing what I hoped, the cinematic potential of a hitman who sees upside down was too much to ignore. This was the same reaction I had to another Christopher Nolan project, Inception. I was given a perfectly acceptable action movie and I left wanting just a little bit more of the surreal.
Still, if the makers of Headshot can live with my misplaced expectations, then I can live with the new blood in an old genre.