Based on the bestselling novel by Jo Nesbø, Headhunters is a taut Norwegian thriller of slick art thefts, aggressive male rivalry and big inferiority complexes.
Thieves In The Night by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers.
It won’t be too long before we see a Hollywood remake of Hodejegerne. Its Munch art thefts and dry, dark humour may be typically Norwegian, but its small-fish-out-of-water, cat-and-mouse plot as well as its underlying story arc of growing self-belief, allowing a surface-happy couple to downsize and found a family, are perfect for the studio make-over. Perhaps with Elijah Wood in the lead role, as businessman Roger Brown who works by day as a high-echelon recruiter with a penchant for reputation while supplementing his income during his lunch hours as a meticulous art thief.
Roger’s only just over 5ft tall and his leggy blonde wife Diana has expensive tastes, so even with the odd Munch smuggled off to Sweden with the help of his friend and security alarm employee Ove, he still can’t afford the repayments on his designer pad or the expensive gifts he smothers his wife with. Unusually, Headhunters is built on a psychological complex, based on a short man’s fear that he’s not good enough for his blonde amazon; his reluctance to have children symptomatic of his fear of abandonment. And despite a doorstep heart-to-heart where Roger comes clean while Diana cleans his wounds, her final reel disappearance into an ex-lover’s apartment suspends our own mistrust a little longer.
And yet the robbery business seems to be going pretty well until Clas Greve appears on the scene with a Nazi-stolen Rubens and a background in elite army tracking. Making their acquaintance at Diana’s gallery vernissage, Clas is the perfect candidate for a high-profile high-tech job Roger’s trying to fill. Better still, Clas doesn’t even want it. And with his priceless and badly protected Rubens, he’s like manna fallen from heaven. But the honeymoon’s quickly over when Roger finds Diana’s phone at his bedside during a robbery. And while Roger may have had his own counter-top trysts with Lotte, it’s a breach in conjugal trust that remains in suspension right to the end.
The cat and mouse chase between Clas and Roger is so intricate, it’s almost baffling to piece it back together. But there’s a clear, concise get-out – big business capitalism wants Roger dead, the only obstacle in their trade secrets theft manoeuvre. A seven-year long masquerade which plants his lover, and maybe his wife, in his way in order to control him. In the tricksy game of moral canasta, corporate bullying trumps stealing paintings hands down and Roger’s petty crimes are almost exculpated. We root for the plucky underdog in too deep as he sinks up to his neck in a cesspit or fakes his own death, his diegetic reputation intact.
Reputation is the leitmotif running through Headhunters, a cunning ruse for Roger to wheedle vital information out of prospective clients and rich art collectors, but also a kind of macho stand-off between Roger and Clas – two old pros who master the unspoken rules, navigating employment candidacy like Crouching Tiger‘s bamboo-tree fight, barely touching the ground. Reputation is also vital to the intricate create-no-waves plot of Nesbø’s source novel. Roger’s fastidiousness in tying up loose ends, retrieving his peanut bag of DNA from the coroner’s lab isn’t perhaps the most riveting sequence, but it alone assures him safe return out of the murderous labyrinth, back to his wife, his job and normality.
Unlike Norway’s dry, dark comedy The Troll Hunter, Morten Tyldum’s direction has all the finesse of a Hollywood studio, while Aksel Hennie’s performance as the unlikely hero is charmingly pitched somewhere between bewilderment and terror. A slick, darkly humorous thriller, Headhunters isn’t an exposé on corporate backhanders or marital inadequacy, but a riotous ride of shootings, skullduggery and psychological fulfilment. It’s not big, but it is clever.
Headhunters is released on 6th April 2012 in the UK