This “Buddhist film noir,” as writer-director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang calls it, is surprisingly slow-moving and soulful for a film full of double-crosses and cold-blooded killing. Zigzagging back and forth in time, it follows cool-guy Tul (Nopachai Chaiyanam) from a fairly mindless life of instinct and action to that Zen state Cesar Millan calls “calm submissive.” Tul’s short, intense life includes some pretty dramatic switchbacks—from cop to prisoner (he’s framed by a drug lord when he wouldn’t take a bribe to drop a case against him) to hit man (or, as the man who hires him prefers to say, “assassination expert”) to monk. Ironically, the thing that finally sets him on the right path is a shot in the head, which leaves him seeing everything upside down. We see things from his perspective, but only fleetingly—just enough to convey a sense of how disorienting it would be to live that way, but not enough to be headache-inducing. That literal change in perspective leads to a metaphysical one, as he loses his taste for killing.
Ratanaruang, a star of the Thai new wave and a Pratt graduate, drenches his film in classic noir style, filling it full of shadows and rain and often placing splashes of white or bright color against a dark backdrop. At the same time, it feels brand new, full of touches like a sporty psychopath who’s all the more creepily opaque for showing up on a bicycle when he’s ready to start his torture session. Ratanaruang and his riveting star keep the focus on Tul’s state of mind while the camera prowls like a big cat, closing in on its subject with slow, steady pans and zooms as if inviting you into his head. And so, while the betrayals and bloody murders Tul weathers or commits are vividly portrayed, they never feel like more than temporary roadblocks in his journey to enlightenment.
Twice,the focus shifts from Tul with a gun in his hand to animals dying nearby: the fish displaced when Tul’s tank is shattered by a bullet and the cow he sees sighing in a pool of its own blood on the floor of a slaughterhouse. In both cases, the dying animals seem to foreshadow Tul’s death, but they also register powerfully in their own right, embodying the Buddhist conviction that all life is sacred.