A cop becomes a hitman becomes a monk in Headshot, a moody, fractured character study disguised as a crime thriller from Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang (Last Life In The Universe). Nopachai Chaiyanam starts off the film by donning a disguise to enable a hit that goes wrong, which ends with him taking a bullet to the head. Against all odds, he survives, but the brain damage leaves him seeing everything upside down, a fact that’s symbolic as much as it’s a reality periodically represented onscreen. The protagonist is being forced to look at his life from a new direction, and is starting to wonder whether he’s on the right path.
Ratanaruang jokingly called Headshot “Buddhist noir,” but it’s actually a fitting description, given that the film is less concerned with the world of crime in which it’s set than it is with Chaiyanam’s quest for personal peace and how it’s affected by his desire for justice. Headshot jumps around in time, filling in its hero’s backstory and the loss of faith that led him to become a professional killer. A detective who was blackmailed and unfairly sent to jail after busting a powerful man and refusing a bribe to walk away from the case, Chaiyanam is recruited by the head of an assassination unit that supposedly only targets corrupt people in power. But like Leonard Shelby in Memento, Headshot’s hero tells a story that doesn’t seem to line up with everything onscreen—he’s a constantly manipulated man, being pushed along by the machinations of those around him.
Headshot is, unfortunately, far better with ideas than with narrative. The film is murky both in terms of its time-skipping storyline—it’s full of scenes that have to be placed based on Chaiyanam’s haircut—and in terms of its underlit look, which means stylishly composed sequences alternate with ones where it’s difficult to see what’s going on. And while Chaiyanam’s road to relinquishing control and accepting he can’t set the world right provides an interesting twist on a criminal tale, he’s an inert, impassive protagonist whose ultimate fate simply isn’t that interesting. Headshot spends so much time assembling his backstory that the present-day twists offer no impact—they’re just the latest turns in a chaotic, uninquisitive life seemingly led constantly on the run.