Houston: Sundance Review

Tale of white-collar desperation is less tense than it sounds

A German businessman finds bigger challenges than he expects on a mission to Texas.

PARK CITY -- The Lone Star State turns chilly in Bastian Gunther's Houston, a nearly emotionless look at white-collar desperation whose protagonist seems to lose all competence when sent on an overseas mission. Ulrich Tukur's dry performance is well aligned with a film whose stretches of inaction may prove frustrating to arthouse patrons drawn in by juicy-sounding themes of corporate intrigue.

Tukur plays Clemens Trunschka, a German corporate headhunter assigned to poach the CEO of a Texas oil company for a German car manufacturer. He is warned that the CEO, Steve Ringer, is shielded by layers of handlers, none of whom may know of the job offer. No one doubts the assignment is well within Trunschka's abilities.

When he fails to make contact with Ringer during a German conference, Trunschka must follow him to Houston, where the barriers to communication are even higher. He becomes a stalker -- digging through garbage and attempting to plant key-logging software on his target's computer, to no avail. In a rare glimmer of agitation, he loses his cool while trying to smooth-talk a receptionist; he's deflected as quickly as a telemarketer would be.

Biding his time in the hotel bar, Trunschka attracts the attention of Robert Wagner (Garret Dillahunt), a loud American whose relentless chumminess rubs the taciturn German the wrong way but is a boon to the film: Dillahunt breaks the film's monotony, and if his character isn't as overtly sinister as some the actor has played, Dillahunt does find the threatening undertones in Wagner's lonely eagerness to please.

Wagner mainly wants to help, though, and surprises Trunschka with information pointing him toward even riskier means of getting to Steve Ringer. The businessman, his need to succeed bolstered by motivational audiobooks, becomes a blackmailer, hoping to get a meeting before his bosses back home grow too impatient.

Gunther and lens-flare-happy DP Michael Kotschi focus frequently on Trunschka's reflection in windows and computer screens, reminding us just how little access we have to the soul inside this nondescript man; his drinking and passivity as a father suggest there's not much more to him than his job. Before he gets out of Houston, Trunschka may not even have that.

Production Company: Lichtblick Media
Cast: Ulrich Tukur, Garret Dillahunt, Wolfram Koch, Jenny Schily, Jens Munchow
Director-screenwriter: Bastian Gunther
Producers: Martin Heisler, Joachim Ortmanns, Anne Walker-Mcbay
Director of photography: Michael Kotschi
Production designers: Christiane Krumwiede,Jeff Hartmann
Music: Michael Rother, Neu!
Costume designers: Susa Sasserath, Rona Lamont
Editor: Anne Fabini

Sales: HanWay Films
No rating, 106 minutes