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Movie Curiosities: Headhunters

A phenomenal thriller.

There’s a depressing number of people out there who refuse to see foreign films. They think that dubbing sounds terrible, that foreign films are too pretentious for their tastes, that reading subtitles while watching a movie is more trouble than it’s worth, etc. Most cinephiles react to such attitudes with abhorrence, but I react to it with pity. Not just pity for the closed-mined sods who have no idea how many great movies they’re missing out on, but also pity for the amazing films themselves. It’s a damn shame how many movies get swept under the rug just because they’re in a foreign language. These great movies come out, then nobody watches them, then Hollywood fires up the remake machine to bring an English-language retread into multiplexes, and then everyone complains about how there are no original ideas being shown in multiplexes anymore.

Fortunately, Headhunters has not (yet) been picked up for a Hollywood remake. But as a subtitled crime thriller out of Norway, I have little doubt that the movie won’t get anywhere near the attention it deserves. Which is a shame, because the film is fucking awesome.

Today’s movie tells the story of Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), a recruiter for a prestigious firm called Pathfinder. The first thing to know about Roger is that he has a huge Napoleon complex. He’s short, he’s wimpy, he’s not very attractive, and he has a gargantuan ego. Sure, he’s very intelligent and charismatic, but that’s not enough to compensate for his perceived shortcomings. Roger lives in an opulent house, drives a gorgeous black Lexus, and generally lives a lifestyle more expensive than he can possibly afford. This is partly for his own benefit and partly to impress his wife, a blonde statuesque beauty named Diana (Synnove Macody Lund).

So how does Roger afford all of this? Well, he uses his day job to find high-powered businessmen with expensive works of art. He then breaks into their homes, steals the art, swaps it for a forgery, and fences it. He’s assisted in this by Ove Kjikerud (Eivind Sander), a corrupt drunkard who got a job at a private security firm courtesy of Pathfinder. Yet even work as an art thief isn’t enough to pay Roger’s exorbitant bills.

Then Roger meets Clas Greve, a young and handsome exec played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Diana (who just opened up an art gallery of her own, by the way) finds through conversation that Clas has come into possession of a priceless work of art that had previously been considered missing. The problem is that Clas is ex-military, formerly part of a Special Forces unit dedicated to tracking down fugitives. He utilized state-of-the-art GPS technology as part of the service, and later went on to help revolutionize the technology after he retired. Oh, and Clas may or may not be sleeping with Roger’s wife.

So Roger steals the artwork before being forced to go on the run, with bodies rapidly piling up behind him. Roger also finds himself repeatedly sinking to new lows, and that’s really where the heart of this movie is.

Remember, Roger’s life up to this point has been all about control. His home life is well-ordered, his hair and wardrobe are perfectly kept, his every art heist is meticulously researched and orchestrated, and he uses a number of psychological tricks to stay ahead at his job. It’s all about maintaining a spotless reputation, and the importance of reputation is a huge theme in this movie. But then Roger starts to get caught up in his greed, vanity, and paranoia. He loses control of himself, with the situation slipping increasingly out of his grasp. As he gets further and further out of his depth, Roger’s physical and mental well-being start to devolve before our eyes.

Now, you may well be thinking that he deserves all of this. Why should we sympathize with an art thief who brought all of this upon himself? Well, you’re not really supposed to at first.  But as the film progresses, Roger’s lifestyle starts to lose his lifestyle along with everything else. His clothes, his car, his complexion… everything that he bought with illegitimate funds to keep up his ego simply disappears. Some things he loses along the way, other things he makes a conscious decision to throw away. The scene in which he loses his wedding ring was especially poignant in this regard.

The point being that Roger is a sympathetic character because his arc is a redemptive one. By stripping this character down to nothing (often quite literally), he discovers what’s really important to him and who his real friends are. There’s also a wonderful scene between Roger and Diana, in which our protagonist finally admits just how weak and insecure he is. And then, in the climax, he learns just how strong he is.

Conversely, we have Clas. You might think that he’d be somewhat sympathetic, since he’s going after the priceless work of art stolen from him. But at some point during the proceedings, it becomes obvious that this is is about more than some old painting. We hear details about how Clas and Roger are caught up in corporate espionage, military contracts, and all manner of other conspiracy shit. Yet Roger was completely unaware of all this, which makes him even more sympathetic. Also, Clas really starts acting like a villain from the one-hour mark or so. Remember, he’s the guy who’s killing people while tracking Roger through unknown methods. Finally, it’s worth remembering that Roger is a smaller and wimpier fellow, on the run from a strong and handsome superman. This gives the story an “underdog” sort of angle, and there’s something inherently appealing in an underdog story.

I hesitate to talk about Diana, since the question of where her love and loyalties lie is a prominent one throughout the film. However, it’s worth mentioning that she’s more than just a trophy wife. Her introduction implies that the character is very superficial, which makes it all the more surprising to see Lund play Diana with such intelligence and empathy. My one nitpick is that we never learn why Diana married Roger to begin with, or what she ever saw in him. Then again, that’s probably because we only see the relationship from his point of view, and Roger himself wouldn’t know the answer to that one.

The screenplay of this film is amazing. The character development is wonderfully paced and presented in a very captivating way (though the wonderful acting performances help a lot in that regard). More importantly, there’s never any way of knowing what the characters will do or how their stories will end. Suspense thrillers live and die on their surprises, and this movie provides a lot. There are some genuinely clever twists in this film, all of which keep the movie immensely entertaining to watch. I’ll grant that it isn’t perfect, however. There is one stupid cat scare, but at least it’s quick and somewhat humorous. There are a few plot holes to find, but they’re mostly presented with some amount of sense. In fact, a handful of them are dealt with in a way that neatly dovetails with the “reputation” theme.

Overall, Headhunters is a very taut thriller that’s powered by masterful character development. It’s an absolutely phenomenal film, every bit as good as any suspense drama I can remember coming out of Hollywood since No Country for Old Men. I had a great time watching this film, and I can’t recommend it enough. Even if you’re not the kind of person who normally watches subtitled movies, I dare you to give this movie a try.

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