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Non-Review Review: Jo Nesbø’s Headhunters

While Jo Nesbø’s Headhunters might get a little bit too crazy and twisty in its final third, but it’s a brilliantly dark Norwegian thriller/comedy, headlined with considerable style by Aksel Hennie as corporate recruitment expert Roger Brown, a sleazy yuppie living well beyond his means to keep his wife in the style two which she has become accustomed. As the movie puts Brown through a sequence of painful and humiliating encounters, it is consistently entertaining, managing to walk the fine line between making sure we dislike Roger enough to be amused by his misfortune, but invested enough that we want to see the little (“1.68 metres”) bugger manage to escape the movie relatively intact.

Got milk?

Cultural stereotypes abound. It’s difficult to read anything about the film that doesn’t make some sort of reference to the break-out Scandinavian film franchise of the past decade, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Even before the movie entered development, the author found himself fighting off comparisons to Stieg Larsson, the author of that iconic series. The adaptation itself is brought to the screen by the same company, Yellow Bird. However, that’s about all that connects these two pieces of entertainment, save geography. (And even then, there’s a considerable divide between Norway and Sweden.) I have to admit, making the comparison feels just a bit lazy, as Headhunters is definitely a very different movie experience – and I mean that in a good way.

The film works best as a grim black comedy, following the trials and tribulations of a sleazy recruitment officer who supports his lifestyle by taking a second job. Times are tough, after all. Still, most second jobs don’t involved the theft of antique and intensely valuable works of art that are ferried out of the country and sold for hugesums of money. I guess we all need a hobby. Aksel Hennie plays Roger Brown, and manages to make him oddly relatable, even if he is completely shallow and transparent. The fact that the script and the character are candid about his flaws helps us to warm to him, even as he proves a completely shifty and untrustworthy (and surprisingly cowardly) protagonist.

Will Roger follow his head or his heart?

It’s a fine line to walk, and Hennie and the script do a fine job. We don’t like Brown, but we do understand him, and we accept his honesty about himself. While he is incredibly rude and self-centred, there’s something almost pitiable about his obsession with his height, or his own belief that he has nothing to offer his wife except a lavish lifestyle and an over-flowing bank account. He lives an existence he openly admits to hating, but because he seems to genuinely care about his wife, even as he cheats on her at every possible opportunity. As such, we don’t mind too much when he gets thrown off a cliff or smothered under an outhouse, but we also want to see the little guy pull through. There’s something almost endearing in Brown’s ability to take obscene amounts of punishment.

In many ways, the film is a noireffort. Naturally, Brown discovers that somebody has an old painting worth enough money to allow the eponymous character to retire to a life of comfort and security. And, just as routinely, Brown’s carefully laid plans begin to fall massively apart – when he discovers that he can’t trust his colleague, or that his marriage might not be as stable as he thought, or when the owner of the painting shows up looking pretty tough.

Head honcho?

In hindsight, stealing a priceless work of art from an ex-military officer who developed a hugely successful tracking system probably wasn’t the smartest of ideas, but it’s a nice conceit that pushes the movie into action. In fairness, Aksel Hennie manages to convince us that Roger is so small-mindedly self-centred and arrogant that he never even registers the incredibly obvious warning signs – he’s simply not sharp enough to see that potential problem coming down the line, unlike the savvy audience members.

Director Morten Tyldum has an eye for action and for suspense, giving us a deliciously stylish movie that looks as sleek and polished as any huge-budget Hollywood production. He knows how to handle the sharp script, balancing the dark humour and the sincere thrills with deft skill. It’s quite an accomplishment that the movie never feels too ridiculous or too earnest, instead sliding gracefully in between those two extremes to find the perfect sweet spot. the movie’s score cleverly fits the direction, and lends a nice atmosphere to the film, enhancing the mood rather than overwhelming it.

Dead tired?

If the movie does have a flaw, it comes in the third act, as the plot starts to snake and spiral and fold back in on itself. We discover that the scenario isn’t as simple as Roger had thought it to be, and that there are sinister forces behind the scenes manipulating events. However, I couldn’t really make sense of it all. Still, it’s easy enough to write off as an expect ingredient in these sorts of darkly comic noir-ish tales – everybody has to betraying and killing everybody else to feed into the atmosphere, after all.

I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll touch on it briefly. It’s suggested that his pursuer had a fairly straight-forward objective, one easy to understand. In fact, we see Roger unwittingly (and eagerly) helps him towards that goal. And, yet, I can’t see why everything suddenly got so violent – surely if the painting had never entered the story, everybody would have gone home happy? I’m not sure, I might need a second viewing to figure it all out. If anyone could explain it to me, I’d be very appreciative. I feel like a bit of an idiot, even though I think I grasped why what was happening was happening.

Roger's world is turned upside down...

Still, it’s a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things. Headhunters is a witty and darkly comic adventure, with a superb lead performance and a perfectly dry wit. It’s quite the work of art itself.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 3

4 Responses

  1. I rate the movie 3

  2. Read your review today, went out to see the film and it was a real treat. Thought it was excellent and I agree with what you say. Also wondered why it got so violent but I guess partly, Greve was a psychopath – a man without empathy. Like Brown except the good thing was that Brown & his wife came into their humanity at the end. Great review, thanks. Sandy

    • Thanks Sandy. Yep, that’s what I was wondering – why did the guy have to sleep with the eponymous recruiter’s wife? Everything would have gone much smoother but for that. Given how meticulous everything else was in the conspiracy, it just seemed like a huge gamble and an unknown risk. Still, the movie was fun enough that I didn’t really mind.

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