Headhunters (Norway/Germany, 2011)

April 28, 2012
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Headhunters Poster

What starts out as a seemingly conventional caper movie quickly transforms into something that's anything but conventional, with bizarre twists, bloody mayhem, and a macabre sense of humor. All this with only five significant characters. Headhunters is based on the novel by Jo Nesbo, which has created the same kind of furor that accompanied the release of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. And, as with Stieg Larsson's book, an English-language motion picture adaptation is in the planning stages despite the existence of a perfectly valid Scandinavian version.

It's not hard to understand why. Headhunters contains many elements that appeal to audiences with an affinity for adult crime thrillers. There's plenty of sex, nudity, and violence; however, although some may seem a little gratuitous, they're all in service of a deliciously twisty narrative whose only real downside is an ending that feels a little too clean and pat. Still, while the conclusion may not be perfect, it's far from a disaster. At a time when many mystery thrillers fall apart in the final fifteen minutes, Headhunters maintains its integrity.

Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) is a corporate headhunter. He recruits clients with attractive resumes and matches them with available jobs. He is regarded as one of the best in the business. He lives a lavish lifestyle, supporting his wife, Diana (Synnove Macody Lund), and his mistress, Lotte (Julie Olgaard), and his debts are mounting. But Roger has a second income that helps him keep the balance sheet in check. He and his partner, Ove (Eivind Sander), are art thieves. Using information Roger gleans from interviews with his clients, they sneak into mansions, replace real paintings with forgeries, then sell the genuine articles to art fences. Most of Roger's operations net tidy sums but, when his wife introduces him to a recently retired CEO, Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), Roger sees an opening for a big score. What he doesn't realize, at least at first, is that Diana is having an affair with Clas, and Clas is anything but an easy mark.

Headhunters' greatest asset is the unpredictability of the plot, which often seems to be traveling in a straight line until it makes a sharp turn to the left or right. When the movie begins, Roger is a position of power; 30 minutes later, the tables have turned. Both hunter and prey are smart and adaptable; Roger proves this in a scene the likes of which hasn't been seen since Slumdog Millionaire. It's never much fun watching a stupid villain chase a stupid protagonist, but give both men brains and it provides an instant injection of suspense. I think Hitchcock would have endorsed Headhunters; it's the kind of movie he would direct if he was live today.

Many of the actors will be unfamiliar to North American viewers; The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo aside, few Scandinavian movies are distributed outside Europe. The exception is Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, who has achieved international recognition for playing Jaime Lannister in the HBO adaptation of George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones. Coster-Waldau is perfect as Clas. He can be smooth and likeable in one scene and cold and calculating in the next. The other lead goes to Aksel Hennie, who also shows range, running the gamut from perfectly coiffed schmoozer to desperate fugitive.

Headhunters is bloody adult fun. The screenplay is smart and darkly funny. The latter element is what makes the movie more than a slog through the treacherous waters of theft, murder, and double-crosses. Yet, though some of the dialogue is spoken tongue-in-cheek, it never becomes too flippant. Director Morten Tyldum paces the proceedings appropriately. Headhunters moves swiftly enough that it never bogs down but not so fast that details and explanations become lost in a whirlwind of plot gears in overdrive. The subtitles relegate the movie to limited distribution, but the production is designed more for mainstream audiences than art-house ones. No need to wait for the English version - this iteration is a good movie and it comes without a two-year wait.

Headhunters (Norway/Germany, 2011)

Run Time: 1:40
U.S. Release Date: 2012-04-27
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content, Nudity)
Subtitles: In Norwegian and Danish with subtitles
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1