The question Kat (Aaron Jukabenko) needs to ask himself is, ‘Does he feel lucky?’ See, his gun holds six bullets and now it’s pointed at his own head by an unknown assailant, and he’s trying to remember if all six were fired over the last few hectic days, or if there’s one last rogue remaining in the chamber. It’s a compelling premise and the Burghart brothers deliver a tight neo-noir western that channels early Coens like Blood Simple, and Jeremy Saulnier‘s Blue Ruin. It’s brisk, stylish and has finely calibrated tonal balance that is equal parts gritty and comedic, with the strong sense that everything is at the mercy of a cosmic comedy of errors.

Jumping back three days, Kat takes his chance to escape from a chain gang after a bizarre accident involving some wild cougars. Scooping up a gun on the way he steals a police car and holes up at the home of an old associate to plan his next move. This is just the start of a relentless series of escapades that require the intervention of the pistol. As each bullet is used, a handy visual counts down the number left in the chamber. While Kat is trying to remember if any bullets are left, he’s also desperately trying to suss out who is stood behind him holding the pistol. After all, he has annoyed a heck of a lot of people recently.

There’s a real propulsive drive to Head Count. From the opening in media res, there’s rarely a directorial foot applied to the brake. It’s driven by a well-judged turn by Jukabenko that keeps Kat empathetic enough to be an anti-hero we’re happy to accompany on his numerous misadventures, and also just the right side of hapless. He’s resourceful enough to get himself out of practically any scrape, but he’s incapable of avoiding the next farcical mess in which he finds himself. When there is a moment to breathe, it’s only to flashback a little further to flesh out the character and provide context for the next chaotic scenes Kat shares with people like his ex-girlfriend Jo (an appealing, no-nonsense Melanie Zanetti) and a corrupt redneck cop played with mercurial zeal by Ryan Kwanten.

Too many of those influenced by the Coen brothers forget the dark humour they brought to their films. The Burgharts’ really understand that feeling of an uncaring universe ready to jam a stick in the spokes of the best laid plans, and that there is unlimited potential for comedy when it’s aimed at the frying-pan-to-fire opportunism of a small-time crook. The Burgharts stuff their narrative with ridiculous situations that are as tense as they are hilarious. It’s a surface-level examination of distilled stress, like a more tonally benign version of the Safdies’ Good Time, and the ultimate reveal is a little unconvincing, but there really isn’t a wasted second. The production design is great, from neon-soaked dive bars, to a weirdly cosy weapons den with hundreds of pictures of Jesus dotting the walls, and cinematographer Christopher Commons keeps things pleasantly dark, but never dingy. It’s an excellent, stripped-back thriller with an execution that largely lives up to its intriguing setup.

Available on digital platforms from Mon 19 Feb 2024