Art theft, hot sex, car chases, international assassins and millions of dollars at stake: When did this become how we perceive Scandinavian cinema? Adapted from a novel by Oslo-based Jo Nesbo, Headhunters takes its place as the latest in the Nordic Noir wave following The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo author Stieg Larsson’s international success, providing audiences some of the old-fashioned dramatic thrills that were in style before CGI special effects ate American movies. A hit in its native Norway and a definite crowd-pleaser at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, Headhunters is slick and spritely, a mixture of corporate skullduggery and low-life slapstick that plays like The Firm meets Blood Simple.
The protagonist, Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), is a big-shot corporate recruiter who lives in a glass, box-like modernist home, drives a flashy car and has a statuesque blond wife, Diana (Synnonve Macody Lund). Much about his life can be explained, he tells us in the opening voiceover, by his height of about 168 centimetres (five foot six). Roger, as successful as he is, is overcompensating. When we first meet Diana, as Roger is bringing her a cappuccino with a heart in the foam, she is naked in the shower, and she towers over him.
Roger cannot actually afford the expensive presents he gives Diana, including her own art gallery. In his secret life, he’s an art thief using recruitment interviews to learn all about clients, before stealing their art. The technique is consistent: After making sure the victims are away at interviews, he sneaks into their homes, cuts the prize painting out of the frame and carefully replaces it with a forgery of the same dimensions so the theft won’t be detected for weeks.
As well as a criminal, Roger’s something of a jerk. A few minutes after kissing his wife goodbye he’s engaging in robust sex with his mistress (Julie Olgaard). Then he dumps her for being too possessive before heading off to the office to play head games with the latest executive client.
That day, at his wife’s new gallery opening, Roger meets a man who looks like the ultimate catch: a handsome Dane named Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau of Game of Thrones) who has recently moved to Oslo after his company was acquired by a larger firm. He's the perfect candidate for a CEO job at a similar company which Roger is working for.
Even better, it seems Clas is in possession of an immensely valuable painting, a lost Rubens – Nazi war art that his grandmother acquired. Finally, Roger seems ready to win the prize that means he can retire from the game. There’s one small catch: Clas seems to be having sex with Roger’s wife.
Viewers will barely have time to ponder how suspiciously convenient all this is before the film hits the fast-forward button, and Roger finds his life going into freefall. Along with the shock violence, the tone here is distinctly Coen-like, black humour that flips into slapstick violence. Part of the fun is seeing an unsympathetic character get his comeuppance, until it becomes nightmarishly disproportionate.
Pursued by an assassin, attacked from a vicious dog, squashed by doughy twin policemen, he gets literally over his head in ways too unpleasant to describe. Naked and bald as a baby, he finds himself in rural Norway, trying to recover his old life.
Headhunters is, it should be mentioned, deeply shallow; a smart contraption rather than a morally considered drama. That’s why you can safely assume an American remake must be in the works. If so, Hollywood would be fortunate to find an actor as entertaining as Aksel Hennie, who does a terrific job of playing with our sympathies, as he makes the transition from a vain corporate Napoleon to a terrified bunny on the run. Tom Cruise might match the height requirements but it’s hard to see him diving into the role’s many indignities, or, frankly, be so willing to assume the part of a hero who can’t stop overcompensating.
- Directed by Morten Tyldum
- Written by Lars Gudmestad and Ulf Ryberg
- Starring Aksel Hennie, Synnove Macody Lund and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
- Classification: 14A