Memento mori: Morten Tyldum adapts Nesbo thriller about an art thief in over his head

In Headhunters, a new and arrestingly original Norwegian thriller from Magnet Releasing, both meanings of the title combatively pop up, generating genuine sparks and surprises.

In one corner is “a recruiter of personnel at the executive level,” Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie)—a corporate scout looking for a new CEO of Pathfinder, a GPS technology conglomerate. On the other side of his desk, unbeknownst to him, is “an athlete who intentionally seeks to harm an opponent,” Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau)—in this case, the rich candidate Roger is interviewing for the Pathfinder position. Because the stakes are high, confidentiality flies out the window, and a wealth of intimate information is relayed freely to the interrogator.

The diminutive, dandified and overly coiffed Roger uses his privileged info to break into the homes of his ritzy clientele and relieve them of their art treasures, which he then promptly peddles on the black market at a handsome profit. He’s assisted by a gang of two—a home-security installer with a soft spot for hookers and guns, and an art forger with instant, on-the-spot capabilities. It’s the slickest operation since Cary Grant worked the roofs of the Riviera as a cat burglar in Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief.

Then along comes Clas, a 500-pound gorilla fiercely protective of his toys who towers over Roger and leaves out a couple of pertinent points in his interview: One, he is having an affair with Roger’s statuesque wife (Synnøve Macody Lund), and, two, he is a former soldier-of-fortune trained by the military to track down foes.

All this becomes clear when Roger makes his move on a Peter Paul Rubens acrylic in Clas’ possession, stolen by the Nazis and valued at $100 million. Hell hath no fury like an art collector with tenacity and military training. Consequently, Roger spends the rest of the film trying to escape the relentless wrath of his would-be victim.

In the process, the little bastard earns some redemptive sympathy from the audience, who are understandably slow to warm to his promiscuous, manipulative, opportunistic ways. But the whirlwind of action is dizzyingly constant and layered with unexpected quirks of plot that give the scenes an amusing, black-humored hue.

Much of this uncharted, turbulent storyline hails from a crime-novel bestseller by Jo Nesbø, dutifully adapted by Lars Gudmestad and Ulf Ryberg, but there are a lot of fresh, funny, offbeat flourishes from director Morten Tyldum as well along the way.

Half and half, Tyldum estimates. “Some sequences are from the book, and some I invented on the set. The knife fight with the mistress, for instance—that’s mine, but the toilet scene is in the book. In fact, it’s a rather famous scene in the book.”

For much of the film, Roger is in a state of perpetual and unpredictable motion, moving from one harrowing scene to another, keeping the audience grimacing and gagging. Sequences end with him wallowing around in other people’s blood, and one vivid scene finds him opting for the Europa Europa alternative in order to escape an unrelenting adversary—diving into an outhouse manhole and sinking into the slime.

Although Hennie prides himself on his Method acting, he had no real problem accepting a substitute for the excrement. “It’s a mixture of mud and brownie and coffee and some oils,” Tyldum replies to the irresistibly obvious question.

“You have no idea how many tests we had to make and how many opinions people had. It was a huge discussion. Everybody was saying, ‘No, shit looks like that,’ ‘No, shit looks like that.’ That was the big debate of this movie: How does shit look?”

Tyldum, who came to the Norwegian cinema in 2000 from New York’s School of Visual Arts, betrays his American idols in his eccentric, giddy appreciation of blood-and-guts violence and, to some extent, emulates their dangerous unpredictability.

“My sense of humor,” he says, “is very inspired by early Coen Brothers. I watched a lot of them, and I kind of like the absurdity of violence. I like it when I go, ‘Eww, that looks like it really hurts—like, a lot’—and, at the same time, you can’t help laughing. There’s some very dark absurdity to a movie like Fargo or, definitely, Blood Simple. Halfway through Burn After Reading, Brad Pitt is shot. You don’t shoot Brad Pitt. That’s something you’re told. I really like the sort of black humor they have.”

By taking this less-traveled, out-of-the-way path, Headhunters has become Norway’s top-grossing film of all time. “I don’t know the exact figures,” Tyldum admits, “but it is the most successful Norwegian film, replacing, I think, Max Manus: Man of War [which, not so incidentally, also starred Hennie]. It also has the most international sales ever in history. I think it sold to every country in the world except South Africa, the Ukraine and a few countries in Asia. That’s why it became such a moneymaker.”

Hennie and Tyldum are on their way to becoming something of a star-director team in Norway, having done their first short together (2000’s Fast Forward) as well as their first feature (2003’s Buddy). The latter, Tyldum recalls, “was more like a Reality Bites coming-of-age movie, twenty-somethings figuring out their lives. It was a big success in Scandinavia—and sort of a breakthrough film for me and Aksel.

“We’ve known each other since then, and we really know each other pretty well,” which, he notes, comes in handy when you’re filming a low-budget movie. “We don’t really have professional stunt people, so the actors and I have to work really closely.

“Aksel is a very physical actor. This was shot in October and November in Norway. It’s really cold, and he is wet half of the film. He’s covered in shit, he’s wearing blood, he’s out in the river, he’s bruised and beaten. All the physical things you see, he’s doing himself—like that scene where he’s shaving his head. That is done real. He shaved it with a dry razor and cut himself badly. The blood that drips down to his face is his own blood. He tries to make it really real. He’s one of those actors who likes to really be in the scene and really experience what the character experiences, which I also love. He sort of disappears into the part, in many ways. I really like that.”

But the career that’s really taking off internationally is Coster-Waldau’s. He starred as John Amsterdam in the eight episodes of Fox’s 2008 series “New Amsterdam,” and he can be found as Jaime Lannister in HBO’s “Game of Thrones.” These days he’s lensing Oblivion, a film with Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman and Andrea Riseborough.

Other language barriers have come crashing down because of the impressive commercial success of Headhunters. First of all, Summit Entertainment has snatched up the film rights and plans to take it from the top again—in English. “They have a first draft now, which they want me to have a look at. But I think it’s important somebody else do the American version because, in a way, they bought the rights to the book—not for the movie—so they will have to make their own interpretation of the book.

“The film’s very different from the book in many ways. The tone, the ending, the lead character—all that is a lot different in the movie. Roger changes much more in the film. In the book, he more or less doesn’t change that much. It’s more about a milieu, and it’s more about a guy who gets in trouble and gets out of it.

“Also in the book, his wife is actually in on it. I think the film is a lot more romantic than the book. I wanted to make a film about a man who goes through hell and changes a lot. He’s a guy who doesn’t think he is worthy of being loved in the beginning, then he loses everything and goes to the loneliest place. Then he picks himself up and finds out it’s enough just being himself.”

Another language barrier is toppling with the futuristic thriller, What Happened to Monday?, that will mark Tyldum’s English-speaking film debut, He happens to speak splendid English and is looking forward to entering the international marketplace.

“We’ve started casting, so the film is financed. We did the director’s last polish, which the studio and production company approved and liked. Vendome Pictures is the studio, the producer is Raffaella De Laurentiis. We hope to start in September.”

The script, an original by Max Botkin, was named in December 2010 to the Black List of best unproduced screenplays. “It was picked up, and it’s been in development for a year. Now they feel ready to go into production and start approaching actors.

“It takes place in the near-future when population has become a huge problem. People are dying of hunger in the U.S., and it’s like a civil war over resources and energy. To calm things down, there’s a strict law that outlaws siblings. Only one child a family, and there’s a bureau that keeps tabs on these things. But, because of some genetically modified foods, there’s a sudden boom of women bearing multiples. One family has seven identical brothers, and the mother is told to kill off six. She refuses and takes them into hiding, naming them after the days of the week, allowing a son a day to go out into the world. They share one life, the seven brothers.

“Actually it’s a film about what it means to have a complete life. It’s an action thriller because Monday doesn’t come back, and it’s the mystery of what happened to him.”

It’s easy to understand, given Tyldum’s penchant for thinking outside the box, his attraction to this sort of Children of Men-Times-Seven (one actor will play all the septuplets): “I like it because it’s a complicated film to shoot. It’s very grounded, and it should feel very real because it’s a high-concept movie. I really like the challenges it brings. I like the idea of somebody who’s very successful and actually has everything but, in a way, doesn’t have anything. He can’t have a relationship, he can’t have a family, he can’t have anything he really needs to have a fulfilled life.”