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REVIEW: Headhunters

If you’re already familiar with the works of Norwegian mystery novelist Jo Nesbo, then you may have some idea what to expect going into the Norwegian wacko thriller Headhunters (adapted from Nesbo’s book). I did not. The film left me dizzy from entertainment when I first saw it at Fantastic Fest last year. And it managed to elicit a nearly equal effect when I saw it again last month. Part No Way Out, part The Fugitive, with a twisty-turny escalation towards exquisite lunacy to rival David Fincher’s The Game. Gripping, gleeful, and unpredictable, this is a mainstream crowd-pleaser through and through, sadly hobbled in its stateside potential only by having subtitles.

Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) is a fraud, mostly only in his own heart. Short and frail, Roger’s every fiber exists to overcome the insecurities born into him. He is the recruiter, or ‘headhunter,’ for one of Norway’s biggest companies, and he is married to a tall and gorgeous art dealer, Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund), but Roger’s insatiable nature, and his fear that Diana will leave him if he does not continue to ply her with gifts, has caused Roger to forge out a thrill-seeking secret life. Roger is also Norway’s most notorious art thief, a risky business that he is being forced to partake in more frequently due to his constant over-spending. Roger needs a big score, and believes he may have lucked out when Diana introduces him Clas Greve (Game of Thrones‘ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a foreigner who recently left his position as CEO of a Halliburton-like company and is looking to have a valuable painting he just inherited appraised by Diana. Roger invites Clas to interview for a position at Roger’s company in order to gain the information he needs to break into Clas’ apartment. But what begins as a seamless bit of thievery spirals wildly and rapidly out of control in ways that Roger (and you) never could have expected.

I’m stopping there; the end of Act I. All more I will say about the story is that despite a great and enticing opening sequence introducing Roger as a rascally master art thief, art theft really has nothing to do with the story. It is exists to jump start the events and to establish Roger as a clever man of sneaky abilities. Headhunters is not a heist movie. It is a walls-closing-in thriller that becomes doubly fun as the “how will Roger get out of this mess” tension is fused with a “holy shit, where is this going” chase movie intensification. And boy do things intensify. Headhunters is an utterly preposterous movie that borders on parody at times, but to its credit, unlike something like The Game, it doesn’t contain the kind of plot-holes that require you to turn a blind eye. Don’t get me wrong, much (hell, most) of the story will leave you with a dubious smirk if you pull it through ye ol’ logic machine. It contains a lot of one-in-a-million moments of chance, constantly flirting with implausibility, but it never quite gets out of step. It somehow holds water. I don’t know if credit goes to author Nesbo, or screenwriters Lars Gudmestad and Ulf Ryberg, or director Morten Tyldum, but my hats off to them. Even with plot-holes the movie would be a great ride, but it holds up to repeat viewings because there aren’t any.

Headhunters is likely destined for an American remake. Even beyond the taught screenplay, like The Fugitive this is a story built upon the cat and mouse relationship between two great characters. This film is tailor-made for two movie stars to have some serious fun with. (Though the vanity of American movie stars would likely remove the detail that Roger is so short, which is ironic considering that most stars are notoriously short.) Aksel Hennie and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau are both fantastic here. I’m not familiar with Hennie’s career, but the whole film depends on his performance. Roger Brown is an unlikable character. Not because he is a thief, but because he is so pathetic underneath his smug shell. He reveres his wife more as a status symbol than as a person, which makes the fact that he’s secretly living the life of a criminal for her benefit (as he rationalizes it) obviously bullshit. He’s doing it for himself. It isn’t so much that Hennie makes you like Roger, but he makes you buy into the character. Bad karma gets Roger into the mess that is Headhunters, and he goes through a spectacular penance of misfortune. Eventually you really, really want Roger to win. Part of this is just the story mechanics, but part of it is Hennie too. There is a hurt quality to Hennie’s eyes that is important to the character of Roger, for Roger had up until now been fully confident (too confident) in his total power over life and his ability to exert his will to get what he wants. Once the shit hits the fan, Hennie’s ability to sell Roger as a ‘little man’ running for his life becomes of far greater importance than his ability to sell Roger as a confident con man had been.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (who is Danish) is slowly cornering the market on impossibly handsome and impossibly badass cads, and showing that he has the chops to back that face of his up. Which is important because while Clas was surely the most fun character to portray in the film, he is a cipher. Part of the film’s game is that we don’t know what Clas’ game is until we’re already well into the run-time, which transforms Clas into something more akin to Rutger Hauer’s character from The Hitcher than Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive. Clas is relentless and seemingly impervious to being out-witted. And as he does with Game of Thrones‘ Jamie Lannister, Coster-Waldau makes Clas seem like he’s having a ball, even when things get really hairy. He’s the kind of man who enjoys being out-smarted, temporarily, because it makes the hunt all the sweeter.

For those who care about such things, Headhunters should announce director Morten Tyldum on the global scene. The script/story is the big draw here, but Tyldum holds it together with a veteran’s confidence. He doesn’t resort to flashiness to keep things thrilling, simply trusting in his material to keep us tied in a knot. He is destined to be embraced by Hollywood because his style and sensibilities are so very Hollywood (and that isn’t an insult). If Headhunters has a flaw it may be that it lacks those unfamiliar quirks that foreign film lovers expect from the subtitled world. This has the sure-handed vibe of something Soderbergh might do between his more personal fringe projects. There is of course no need to remake this film, but if they do I would like to see Tyldum offered the captain’s chair again to make his announcement on the scene a little louder. He isn’t the auteur type, so much as a master craftsman. He should now be receiving offers to helm big franchise sequels and the like.

I don’t want to risk spoiling the unraveling fun of the film. If you want to hear more detailed story thoughts, go see the film and we can chat in the forum.

To see when/where the film will be hitting theaters click here.

[rating: 4]