In some ways Headhunters is a cheerfully old fashioned thriller. This isn’t some sort of brooding slice of semi-political intrigue barely visible through a maze of handheld cameras. It’s a very slick affair filled with clever twists, dramatic shifts, and dollops of blood along with a streak of humor acknowledging that the filmmakers are well aware of just absurd it all is. The movie isn’t anything that will change or expand the genre, but it’s an expertly crafted romp filled with liberal doses of sex and violence. What elevates the proceedings above a more typical genre outing is the fact that it’s actually made for grown ups and packed with actors rather than gossip magazine personalities. That seems like a simple shift in focus, but these days we have to go all the way to Norway to find it. Thankfully a few folks like director Morten Tyldum know the audience for this type of film still exists and are talented enough to pull it off.
Headhunters stars Aksel Hennie as Roger a successful corporate headhunter who plucks talented folks out of established jobs to give them even hirer profile positions at other companies. He’s a diminutive chap with classic little man syndrome, endlessly overcompensating for his physical shortcomings with status, wealth, cars, a mansion, and a glorious Scandinavian wife named Diana (Synnove Macody Lund) who towers over him. Yet despite all the white-collar success, Roger still lives significantly above his means, moonlighting as an art thief/forger to supplement is income. At first, he seems to have the double life in check, but if you’ve seen a thriller before you’ll know that doesn’t tend to last. Everything changes when Clas (Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) enters his life. Clas is a taller, charming, ex-military man with a background in surveillance that makes him perfect for a position Roger is trying to fill. He’s also got eyes for Diana and a hefty art collection including a particularly rare painting that Roger is equally excited to steal. So he does and at that point the military-trained surveillance expert might take it personally and be pretty good at dolling out revenge.
That’s just the start of the complex web of deceit and violence contained in the film. Adapted from a novel by acclaimed thriller specialist Jo Nesbø, Morten Tyldum latches onto the twisted structure with ease, lovingly toying with expectations. The first chunk of the movie is shot and set up like a conventional heist movie with Roger as the hero. Then when Clas figures out the game, the whole thing transforms into a relentless dirty thriller with a sick sense of humor. While watching Roger walk through his ritzy life with more misplaced cockiness than a reality TV celebrity, you’d never predict that you’ll soon see him bald, bloody, and covered in shit. Tyldum nimbly juggles between tones and styles throughout. Nothing he throws at screen could possibly feel out of place by the finale. At times reality is stretched quite far and thankfully Tyldum seems aware of that, offering the occasional wink at the audience and gradually sliding from realism into movie-land.
A key reason for the film’s success is the deadpan funny and sweaty physical performance from Aksel Hennie. He’s asked to go through hell in the movie and given the inevitable budget constraints of the Norweigan film industry, he had to do it all himself. Few movie characters are doled out this much punishment and yet it’s necessary because for the first 20 minutes or so Roger is more asshole than hero. He has to climb through oceans of literal shit to earn back audience sympathies and Hennie clearly enjoys playing the prick as much as the victim. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is a strong super-slick antagonist as well and more than capable of charming his way into stealing a few scenes from the star. But this is mostly Hennie’s movie with other characters dropping in and out depending on how desperate a situation he finds himself in. This is the kind of performance in a foreign hit that tends to earn actors a accented character actor pass in Hollywood and given that a remake of Headhunters is already in development in La-La land, it shouldn’t be long before we see Hennie turning up as a mysterious villain of unknown European origin in some sort of blockbuster.
Headhunters has the wonderfully constructed semi-ironic thriller style of an early Coen Brothers picture, but quite not as good as that obvious reference point. Tyldum has no real interest in commenting on the genre he’s playing in, he just wants to entertain. That’s the main drawback to the movie, it’s all fairly hollow. As fun as it can be in the moment, there’s absolutely nothing going on beyond the kinetic rush and it doesn’t take much effort to notice how frivolous it all is. There’s nothing wrong with that, but a dark and absurd thriller with no real artistic aspirations beyond making viewers go “whoa” can only be so good. The level of expectation you have for the flick should be lowered accordingly. It ain’t a masterpiece, but it’s quite a twisted ride and one that shouldn’t scare off popcorn-munching viewers with subtitles during blockbuster season. You’ll want to see this now before the inevitable Taylor Lautner version spoils the fun.