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‘Head Count’ (review)

Head Count is a true surprise: an unheralded low budget release from a first time feature director (or in this case, a directing team) that ends up being a stylish, elegant, tightly-wound thriller which delivers care and craft well beyond its means.

Brothers Ben and Jacob Burghart are directors to watch in the future. There’s a scene three quarters of the way into the film that really drove home for me how finely tuned this 75 minute crime picture really is: Our hero Kat (Aaron Jakubenko, who I have never seen before but really holds this film together) is charged by a creepy casino boss to “take someone to the reservoir.” As he approaches the Caddie and no one’s in the cabin, he moves towards the trunk, hesitating on whether he should open it. He moves back to the cabin of the car, grabs a rag, and begins wiping off the outside of the trunk all while bathed in the eerie red of the running car’s tail lights.

Forget not seeing the body– we don’t even need to see the blood itself when the construction of the scene is so precise and clear.

Head Count follows an escaped prisoner, Kat, who is being menaced by unseen killers with a revolver. As they pull the trigger on successive empty chambers, Kat flashes back from his escape to the present moment remembering how each bullet in the allotment of six was spent.

Normally, flashback films are like epistolary novels: they have major difficulty in keeping the pace and maintaining tension because they’re hampered by their own design. As silly as this gimmick is, it works in this case because of the wicked humor and fine suspense that are built into the first few episodic flashbacks.

The actual escape took me completely by surprise and almost feels like it comes from a different film: prisoners on a chain gang being pulled into the dark brush by something with the survivors holding on for dear life not to be the next pulled in. The interplay between Kat and Sawyer (Ryan Kwanten, who seems to be having a blast) as we hear a man being eaten alive in the background reminded me of classic horror-comedies like Tremors. Follow that up with a legitimately funny comedy of errors when Kat breaks into what he thinks is a friend’s house, and then just a pitch perfect scene of Hitchcockian suspense at a low life gun dealer’s hovel involving coffee tables and pictures of Christ and I’m sold.

Head Count is proof you don’t need big money to make a great film, even if you want to do genre work, because what’s necessary for a great film is thoughtful communication of meaning through images. Again and again in this film I was taken aback by how much was achieved with so little: there’s a sinister character in the third act who is filmed in one unbroken profile shot and between holding on her for as long as the film does and never giving us a direct look at her she becomes exponentially more sinister.

This is a perfect B-movie, right down to the running time. Like a Ranown western it enters, establishes, and brings everything home in 75 with very little flab. It knows exactly what it is, what it’s trying to do, and it executes it. Can’t give it any higher praise than that.

Highly recommended.

Head Count in now playing in select US theaters and
is available on VOD from Shout! Studios.

*  *  *  *  *
Produced by Tristan Barr, David Gim, Austin Wagoner
Written by Jacob Burghart, Ben Burghart, Josh Doke
Directed by Jacob Burghart and Ben Burghart
Starring Aaron Jakubenko, Ryan Kwanten,
Melanie Zanetti, Chris Bylsma, Addam Bramich


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