Film Review: Headhunters

Darkly comic thriller from Norway in which a corporate headhunter who moonlights as an art thief gets a terrifying comeuppance.

Based on the evidence of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy and this film adaptation of best-selling Norwegian author Jo Nesbø’s Headhunters, the Scandinavians don’t hold back when it comes to their crime fiction. This is as dark a comedy-thriller as you’re likely to see this year, a movie that takes an unlikeable protagonist so deep into painful humiliation, desperation and danger, you can’t help feeling sorry for the jerk by the end of his nightmare ordeal. The wild plot twists may not hold up under close scrutiny, but director Morten Tyldum’s third feature is a perversely entertaining ride.

Aksel Hennie, one of Norway’s top stars, plays Roger Brown, a smug corporate headhunter who lives in a spectacular modernist house with a beautiful blonde wife, Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund), an art gallery owner. In order to maintain his expensive lifestyle, Roger has a secret sideline: He steals valuable paintings from the homes of the high-powered applicants whose job interviews he has arranged.

But Roger picks the wrong victim in Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau of HBO’s “Game of Thrones”), a GPS technology expert who happens to own a priceless Rubens painting that was confiscated by the Nazis in 1941 and passed on to his grandmother. Unfortunately for Roger, Clas is also a former special-forces operative with a history of coldblooded killings. Roger’s mind is also muddled when he discovers, thanks to a misplaced cell-phone, that Diana is having an affair with Clas.

The first sign that things have gone awry occurs when Roger’s gun-crazy partner-in-theft Ove (Eivind Sander) is drugged with a syringe that was meant for Roger. The ensuing cat-and-mouse pursuit puts Roger in a vertiginous spiral of murder, a horrific car crash, an attack by an angry dog, and such indignities as stripping naked to rid himself of tracking devices and hiding out in an outhouse’s pool of filth. Roger also discovers that he’s not the only player in this game with a secret agenda, as double-crosses pile upon double-crosses.

The first half of Headhunters is deceptively sleek and stylish, as screenwriters Ulf Ryberg and Lars Gudmestad set up the premise and get their chess pieces in place. But once Roger’s nemesis takes control, the movie seems driven to top itself, with each set-piece more outrageous than the last. Throughout, Hennie is extraordinarily game to take the punishment, whether immersing himself in excrement, shivering in the woods, or shaving his head with a straight razor. By the time the story reaches its improbable happy ending, the audience is satisfied that this arrogant crook’s redemption has been well-earned.

Headhunters was Norway’s second-highest grossing film of 2011 after the final Harry Potter movie, and it’s clearly been a calling card for its talented director. Summit Entertainment plans an American remake (without Tyldum) that Mark Wahlberg is eyeing, and Tyldum himself is preparing his own English-language debut. The Hollywood headhunters have arrived.