A character-driven thriller, “Head Count” keeps audiences on the hook with great performances, a smart script, and an air of authenticity.
Head Count pitches its lead straight into a no-win situation, faced with a gun to the head and no way out as the chamber spins counting down the seconds left in a lifetime of poor decisions.
Sometimes, the end is the beginning. This is undoubtedly the case with Head Count, from directors Ben and Jacob Burghart, who deliver an effective thriller that mostly does what it needs to do without overstaying its welcome.
The central conceit of having your own gun used as the instrument of your death is pretty cool and opens up the possibilities for writers Ben Burghart, Jacob Burghart, and Josh Doke to spin a tale of what is some of the most improbable luck anyone could have.
In keeping with films such as Memento and The Usual Suspects, half the fun is getting to the end without knowing beforehand what happens.
The film kicks into high gear with one of the most opportune chain-gang escapes I’ve ever seen. Kat (Aaron Jakubenko) is working off his debt to society, digging holes when somehow the stars align courtesy of an animal attack and a less-than-bright guard (Sawyer, played by Ryan Kwanten).
Kat manages to escape amidst the chaos, supported by a great score and some cracking cinematography. The pure joy displayed by Kat here is palpable as he takes off, leaving that life behind.
Another seemingly blessed encounter leaves him with the gun, setting everything in motion.
There’s a game of forced roulette where we slowly start to piece together just what is happening, with each appearance representing a kind of visual milestone in Kat’s journey.
As we follow him into some batty situations, we discover that Kat is prone to some incredibly bad luck but somehow manages to get through it.
His life is a constant knife edge of decisions, forcing him to react and adapt to the consequences of those decisions. What he really wants is to get out of Dodge and take his brother Hayes (Kyle Dyck) with him. But Hays isn’t prepared to leave his life.
There is underlying easy-going humor at play in the scenes between these brothers that conveys real warmth, gradually pulling you in and making you invest in the hope for a happy ending.
The main lead is spot-on in his role. Kat has that easy swagger to him, like Bradley Cooper in The Hangover, and he has enough about him to carry the piece from one story point to the next. He is so likable that you emphasize with him in each of the situations he’s faced with, and Aaron Jakubenko does an exceptional job of conveying the multitude of emotions at each point.
It’s the same with Jo (Melanie Zanetti), and she carries herself with a healthy dose of reality as she knows that Kat represents the life she wants, but not necessarily the life that is needed. Another stand-out is Sawyer (Ryan Kwanten), who is played with that right level of mean without being a typical cookie-cutter character.
The final act really steps on the gas, and we wait for the end game as the pieces are slotted into place.
I won’t spoil it, but the conclusion is exciting and does well to punctuate a savvy thriller.
The run time doesn’t quite allow for all the motivations to be made clear as it concentrates on Kat. I can forgive that, however, because it is an engaging story that doesn’t just rely on violence or blood.
Considering the directors first made this as a short film for a 48-hour film festival, they already had a winning template in place. And they are largely successful at fleshing that fine canvas out into a highly watchable feature.
Head Count is well-made with some smart dialogue that allows all of its supporting characters their moment to shine in the sun.