Head On: Fatih Akins’ Explosive Drama

In Fatih Akins’ Head-On, bursts of explosive anger are so vividly realized that it is a wonder the movie does not combust.

Its characters harbor inner turmoil that can only be released through physical pain, and Akin does not spare us from this pain but assaults us with its sheer intensity. Rather than distancing us, here the violence works to provide a visceral journey into two tortured souls. Those who can stomach Head-On will be rewarded by its refusal to compromise when allowing us emotional access to its characters. Few movies make us feel so deeply.

While most cinematic relationships begin with the possibility of love, Head-On opens in the aftermath of heartache with characters no longer capable of expressing love. When Cahit (Birol Unel) and Sibel (Sibel Kekilli) meet eyes in a hospital after both attempting suicide, they are too dead inside to even entertain the possibility of romance. They come from wildly different backgrounds but share the ability to perplex others with their destructive behavior. Cahits doctor questions why he would drive into a brick wall rather than simply taking a gun to his head and Sibels family treats her depression as an inconvenience for them.

Sibel and Cahit are both Turks but while widower Cahit lives alone and does janitorial work for a living, Sibel is oppressed by a family that prides itself on traditional values. She sees Cahit as a means of escape but he rejects her marriage proposalrelationships hold no interest for him in his zombified state. Only after Sibel raises the stakes, demonstrating that she will kill herself before his eyes if he refuses to marry her, does he cave in. Sibels family holds an elaborate Turkish weeding ceremony, where the low-life Cahit is a fish-out-of-water amid the regal adornments. When the band starts playing, Cahit turns to her and wearily asks Do we have to dance but caves into the hostile stares of her relatives.

Sibel moves into Cahits pigsty of an apartment, so steeped in filth that you half-expect raccoons and feral cats to emerge from the piles of scum-encrusted dishes and fermenting laundry. Sibel does not only tolerate but thrives in the squalor, and she floats down the graffiti-covered neighborhood in her elegant wedding dress with the same sensual abandon as Cher in Moonstruck.

Here, depravity is exposed for what it is rather than concealed beneath the dressings of propriety as it is in Sibels world. The hypocrisy of Sibels family comes through in a scene where Cahit plays cards with Sibels brothers. They ask him to accompany them to the brothels, and the vulgarity of Cahits response (Why dont you fuck your own wives) offends them.

Cahit and Sibels marriage is one in name only; they sleep in separate rooms and spend time together only when they are too stoned to care if friendliness leads to a dangerous emotional bond. The rest of the time they spend in trashy bars, where Cahit initiates arguments that usually end with him bashing the other guys head in and Sibel lures home strangers for empty sex. The sex scenes are gritty and unglamorous; the camera does not modestly pan away when the clothes hit the floor but lingers on the sweaty bodies.

Head-On delivers its acidic despair with relentless force, blasting us with discordant rock music and pummeling us with scenes of naked brutality. It is through this sensory overload that the characters attempt to annihilate their inner pain, as constant stimulation prevents their loneliness from surfacing.

However, emotional scars do emerge when Sibel resurrects the pleasures of married life for Cahit by cooking him dinner. They use this quiet moment to bond as they luxuriate in the smell and texture of the food. For the first time, domestic tranquility becomes an option.

To say that the movie drastically changes course after this scene does not give away the resolution but sets up Phase 2 of the journey. Akin is not concerned with the question of if Sibel and Cahit will fall in love but rather with their struggle to come to grips with their newfound capacity for love.

The performances capture the indecision of two characters vacillating between passion and indifference. Unel wears stoned lethargy like a mask but erupts into volatile fits of rage when provoked, and Kekilli uses her ever-present smile to express coyness, tenderness and doubt. At times her warmth seems genuine and at other times it is a put-on meant to soften her callous actions.

Head-On does not assuage us with easy answers but forces us to confront behavior that is baffling, horrifying and real. The experience may be unpleasant but the fact that it is an experience and not a shallow representation of emotion makes it all the more powerful.

Reviewed by Kate Findley