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NYFF08: Experimenting with boredom ("Bullet in the Head")

Above: If you think this looks dull, just wait until you hear how it sounds.
It may seem a bit hackneyed to start a review with a question, but this film undoubtedly requires it: can there be movies that are only good after they are seen and not while watching them? Bullet in the Head is nothing but a frustrated viewing, an experiment for the spectator, but one without a point. But afterwards there is an appeal to it, I admit, its sneakiness—irritating in execution—becomes conceptual and more stunt-like in retrospect, the viewing all done with and forgotten in its dullness, and mostly just the curious idea surviving.
The idea is this: to film nearly an entire movie around the routine actions of a middle-aged man from a long way away, the camera zoomed in as if from the point of view of an observer, often removed between a pane of glass or some other obstacle, and too far away to ever hear any dialog or words spoken out loud. The entire soundtrack is made up entirely of what seems to be the ambient sound of the environment surrounding the area where the camera is placed. You never hear the man speak, and you never know what he says to the people who may be his friends, or his co-workers, or his bosses, or his terrorist gang members. Intriguing at first, it quickly becomes clear that director Jaime Rosales has not set down any system of rules that this point-of-view might entail, as the impression that the film is showing us what voyeur would see, being too far away to hear, is negated in several scenes where we can hear sound effects occurring near talking characters, but we cannot hear what they are talking about. Sadly, the fun guesswork that is prompted from this noteworthy experiment—forcing the audience to start asking questions about what they are seeing and what is important—dramatically falls off the moment it becomes apparent that Bullet in the Head lacks guiding ideas behind the camera’s distance and the refusal to give auditory information.
Compounded with the sloppy formalism of the film is the utter colorlessness of the leading man’s activities. There is a baffling lack of mystery behind every-single-scene up until the title of the film reveals itself in the final ten minutes; it is shocking to find out that Bullet in the Head’s startling formal conception isn’t even calibrated for any kind of open interpretation. No hints are dropped, no ambiguous behavior, no auditory clues, and no events or plots points are vivid enough to give even the most generously thoughtful viewer a detail or thread to pick up and expand, test, and play with in their minds. And then someone is shot in the head. And then someone is kidnapped and left in the woods. And then the movie ends. And then you realize that it did not “all lead up to this,” but rather that it just happened to end this way.
At this point, with the frustration of watching the movie continually, endlessly prove itself to be without intrigue within a forcefully interesting formal experiment, finally with the execution over and done with, we are left with the thought. And the thought is the making of a movie around events and human interaction so unworthy of note that we don’t need to hear what anyone says to one another—we don’t even want to. Instead of an instance of mystery, Rosales using a strict form to inspire questions, the purpose flips around on us and we get an instance of judgment on the film’s own content: this isn’t worthy of listening in on, there is no story here. Yet it ends in violence, random, unmotivated violence, violence which does nothing to inspire questions about the preceding 70 minutes of boredom. This is where the fascination lies, where Bullet in the Head as an idea and not as a thoughtful, alive cinematic construction becomes interesting: in theory. That inside an entire slab of a boring man’s boring routine you can find nothing, and that that nothing can lead to a merciless execution. It almost makes you think.

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