Director : Morten Tyldum
Screenplay : Lars Gudmestad & Ulf Ryberg (based on the novel by Jo Nesbø)
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2011 (Europe) / 2012 (U.S.)
Stars : Aksel Hennie (Roger Brown), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Clas Greve), Synnøve Macody Lund (Diana Brown), Eivind Sander (Ove Kjikerud), Julie Ølgaard (Lotte), Kyrre Haugen Sydness (Jeremias Lander), Reidar Sørensen (Brede Sperre), Nils Jørgen Kaalstad (Stig), Joachim Rafaelsen (Brugd), Mats Mogeland (Sunded)
A superior Nordic thriller, Headhunters (Hodejegerne), based on the 2008 novel by celebrated crime writer Jo Nesbø, is a twisted and twisting take on the potentially lethal outcomes of male ego and insecurity, which find their greatest embodiment in capitalism at its most aggressive, which the film’s title cleverly links to more primitive, but clearly related, forms of violence. Like the best crime films, the plot is an intricate puzzle in which every piece has a purpose—some of which are immediately apparent, others of which don’t fall into place until the final moments. But, like many a great Hitchcock film, the plot is just the surface, under which boils a seething layer of psychosocial angst and aggression. All of the film’s violence and mayhem is ultimately reducible to the capitalist mentality that you are what you own and that your profession defines your persona, which here is taken to murderous extremes that are both darkly funny and frighteningly plausible.
The film’s protagonist is Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), a successful corporate headhunter whose economic and interpersonal ambitions are driven primarily by his perceived need to compensate for his physically short stature (he introduces himself in voice-over narration by noting that he is one metre sixty-eight—that’s five feet, six inches to those of us stateside) and less than matinee-idol looks. His wife, Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund), is tall, gorgeous, blonde, and successful, so naturally Roger worries incessantly that he will lose her to a more deserving man. To keep her happy, he constantly buys her expensive presents, furnishes her with a lavish modern mansion, and funds the art gallery she has recently opened.
Unfortunately, Roger’s corporate job does not come close to covering all of his extravagant expenses, so he moonlights on the side as an art thief. He collaborates with Ove Kjikerud (Eivind Sander), an “inside man” who works at the home security company that is apparently used by all the wealthy residents of Oslo, to steal expensive works of art and sell them on the black market. Roger uses his legitimate job as a means of targeting potential victims (he manages to work art into all of his interviews, and once he ascertains that an interviewee has something worth stealing, he asks about maids, working spouses, schedules, and the presence of dogs in the home). He is smart and crafty in his thievery, sticking to a 10-minute timeline, donning latex gloves and a mask so as not to leave any DNA traces, and always replacing the stolen paintings with inexpensive forgeries that won’t be discovered for weeks.
The competitor Roger has always feared most appears in the form of Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a square-jawed, utterly confident alpha male who has just moved to Oslo after selling a successful tech company that specializes in tracking devices. He is introduced to Roger by Diana, who met him because Clas is in possession of an extremely rare painting that has been lost for decades and he wants her to help him restore it. Thus, Roger’s twin drives—his insecurity regarding his relationship with his wife and his income-supplementing art thievery—come into perfect alignment, as he realizes that stealing Clas’s painting, which is worth tens of millions (if not a hundred millions) of dollars, is the ticket to lifelong financial security and, therefore, marital security.
To describe too much more of the plot risks ruining some of the film’s best pleasures as its intricate story unfolds in layers and characters are revealed to be more than what we initially thought. Suffice it to say that Roger’s decision to steal Clas’s painting sets off a chain of violence that escalates and escalates, turning Roger into a desperate fugitive running from (in another nod to Hitchcock) both the police and other more nefarious forces intent on killing him. Director Morten Tyldum orchestrates the increasing mayhem with a sure hand, saving his aesthetic flourishes for times when they are most needed and disguising carefully plotted elements as amusing detours (pay attention, because every little thing that transpires has a purpose, even a seemingly throwaway visual gag about a pair of extremely portly police officers). The film’s sneakiest trick is that Roger is hardly the Hitchcockian “wrong man,” but rather almost fully deserving of the torment he endures, even if the reasons for said torment turn out to be completely different than he (and we) suspect.
Perhaps the biggest and most surprising pleasure in Headhunters is the development of Roger, who at the beginning of the film could be generously called a cad. Even though we recognize that his smug, condescending outer persona is masking a deep cauldron of male insecurity, Roger’s behavior is nonetheless frequently indefensible, particularly the affair he is carrying on with a woman named Lotte (Julie Ølgaard). The hypocritical nature of the fact that he is having sex with someone else while constantly worrying that his wife will leave him for a “better” man is compounded by his cruel treatment of Lotte, who is emotionally invested in the affair; he casts her off as soon as she wants some part of him outside of the bedroom.
However, as the film progresses and Roger runs for his life, enduring all manner of physical hardship in the process, he becomes more and more sympathetic—a pathetic little man whose social and economic armor has been violently stripped away, leaving him, at one point, literally naked with his head shaved to the skin out of desperate necessity to elude his killers. Aksel Hennie, who looks a bit like Peter Lorre with a blond pompadour, is a revelation in the role; he transforms throughout the film, drawing us closer and closer to sympathy until we forget that he started as such a cad. The violence he endures clarifies for him and us the pointless, circular nature of his earlier endeavors; it is as if the brutality of trying to save life and limb puts into full relief the silliness of materialism and monetary excess, all of which he has clung to out of fear that he is otherwise not “man enough.” By the end of the film, he has proven himself in ways we couldn’t have initially imagined, and has been forged into a genuinely different person.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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