Buddhist Neo-noir. Let that phrase roll around on your tongue. There's something a bit incongruous about it. At least, that's how I felt until I watched Headshot, which uses the phrase in its marketing material. After seeing the film by Thai director Pen-ek Ratanaruang, I can't think of a better way of describing the blend of philosophy and nail-biting tension contained within.
The film follows Tul (Nopachai Chaiyanam) across fragmented timelines. He used to be a passionate cop until he crossed paths with a drug lord who had political ties. When Tul wouldn't accept a bribe, he was framed for a murder he didn't commit (and that may not have been a murder after all). After being tossed into the gears of the very penal system he had sworn to protect, his idealism slowly faded away. Now, he is employed as an assassin for a shadowy group that is working outside the law to cure the ills of society. During an assassination attempt gone wrong, he gets shot in the head and wakes from a coma to find that his vision has literally turned upside down. Physically unable to process the world as he used to, he discovers what truly motivates him and the price he must pay to achieve his goals.
First and foremost a character piece, Headshot is likely to confound a few viewers. For a movie that hums with the constant threat of violence at every turn, it is ultimately about one character's quest for peace or some approximation of it. Tul goes from blind idealism to nihilism before being placed in a situation that will force him to seek the pragmatic balance that exists in between both extremes. Ratanaruang cleverly employs the film's fractured storytelling as something more than just another stylistic device. By cutting back and forth between Tul in his present state and the man he used to be, we gain an appreciation for exactly how much he has lost in the process. By measuring out the moments of sobering devastation, their impact is multiplied many times over.
There is a quiet intelligence at play here which comes through in all the choices Ratanaruang makes in depicting a character as tightly coiled as Tul. Framing the vigilantism of his job as rooting out evil genes that could take over society if left unchecked, gives his mission an unexpected biological imperative. He is surrounded by foils (Chanokporn Sayoungkul and Sirin Horwang) who act as moral markers when he seems opaque and adrift. Most tellingly, he is a man of action who simply wants to stop killing people but the only way he can truly do so is to kill a few more. This sort of duality isn't dressed up in typical action movie heroics (although the movie does feature its fair share of shootouts). Instead, the focus is on Tul's resistance to violence and the aftermath of his inability to avoid it.
Considering just how intimate we get with Tul's psyche, Ratanaruang is fortunate to have someone like Chaiyanam portraying his lead. Chaiyanam's performance is a measured and internalized one that is effective without being showy or over the top. He projects a convincing mixture of vulnerability and no-nonsense ruthlessness that is endlessly intriguing. Sayoungkul and Horwang are just as impressive with their smaller roles. Sayoungkul transforms her hooker with a heart of gold into something more than a cliché while Horwang is just as compelling as Tul's hostage whose worldview is similarly upended in less obvious ways. Ratanaruang's crew behind the camera is just as skilled with cinematographer Chankit Chamnivikaipong bringing the director's compositions to brilliant life. From top to bottom, this is a solid example of what a thinking man's noir should look like.