As with all trends, however, it doesn't take long for the cutting-edge to become a cliché. The fact that Midsummer Murders is one of the most popular programmes in Denmark suggests that the popularity of Scandinavian crime stories lies more in a fascination with cultural differences than any inherent difference in quality. Words like 'bleak' and 'gritty' have become redundant descriptors for these stories, and for all their merits, their general pervasion leaves you crying out for something different. All of which brings us to Headhunters, a great little thriller which takes the gritty, stylish aesthetic of these stories and douses it with a lot of dark humour.
Purely from a technical standpoint, Headhunters is one of the most breathless and efficient thrillers in the post-Bourne era. Its first half hour in particular is frenetic, with its need to set up all the plot points trumped by its greater need to keep the story and action barrelling along at a break-neck pace. But unlike the many Bourne imitators, who have misinterpreted and misused Paul Greengrass' aesthetic, the film is not needlessly flashy in its shooting style. There is some hand-held stuff during the scenes in the woods, but otherwise there are plenty of tripods to go round.
Because of this breathlessness, Headhunters avoids one of the big traps of the crime thriller genre - namely the belief that a bleak, forbidding atmosphere can only be achieved by slow pacing. The film does slow down at certain points, allowing the more intimate moments to breathe and to increase the tension during the near-misses in the chase. But Tyldum Mortem is careful never to let these scenes drag or otherwise interfere with the fun. This steady hand works in the film's favour in the opposite way: it gives off such a level of confidence that we don't ever get the sense that it would all fall apart if it did slow down.
The film also boasts great cinematography, courtesy of John Andreas Andersen. The opening section is incredibly stylish, with a crisp, glossy feel akin to The Social Network or the thrillers of Michael Mann. As the various plot points develop, Anderson matches the darker comedy with harsher and nastier tones, turning the colour palette right down and lightening the blood in a realistic manner. What little special effects there are in the film are also effective thanks to Andersen's work; we know full well that a real dog wasn't killed in the film, but it looks so real that you do stop and wonder, if only for a second.
On top of any visual similarities, the plot of Headhunters knowingly tips its hat to a number of other thrillers. There is a close comparison to the Coen Brothers' debut Blood Simple; both have a ruthless efficiency and are characterised by a balance of dark humour and dramatic tension. Making the main character an art thief immediately calls to mind The Thomas Crown Affair, though the film is tonally closer to the John McTiernan remake than the original. The truck sequence is arguably an elaborate reference to Steven Spielberg's Duel, and the scenes in the hospital are highly reminiscent of The Fugitive.
It's perfectly possible to enjoy Headhunters as a well-oiled machine, an efficient genre exercise. It is ultimately a film concerned more with pacing than with substance or insight, with the need to keep things moving occasionally working against its attempts at emotional depth. But it also has a few ideas of its own which set it apart from many of the films it is referencing or taking after. As clichéd as it is to describe it in such a manner, it is more introspective and self-aware than many British or other English-language thrillers borne from similar material.
One of the film's main themes is reputation. Roger Brown is a man whose life is built around both his own personal reputation and the belief that reputation is the only thing that matters. He steals priceless works of art to fund his lifestyle and make his wife happy, ensuring that they can be seen at the right parties and own the house that everyone wants. His job involves making judgements on people based on others' opinions of them and concerns about the images of the companies he serves. His numerous misfortunes as the film goes on find him discovering that this frame of mind is deeply damaging: his desire for status is ultimately what leads to the affair and his life falling apart around him.
The central conflict between Roger and Clas Greve furthers this theme, and asks a supplementary question about the importance of empathy over ambition. In their final showdown in Ove's house, Clas appears to have the upper hand. He stands lean and elegant against the shrinking, pathetic Roger, and ridicules him for lacking the power and will to keep the things he wanted. Roger then trumps him with the reveal about the bullets, signifying his motives were the better ones. He chose the love of his wife over the satisfaction of the deal, and after hours of running, he finally defeats his opponent.
Like many thrillers, Headhunters plays with the idea of deceitful appearances. Clas starts off as a distinctive client of Roger's, smartly dressed, straight to the point and a worthy opponent at the dinner table. He then becomes a ruthless soldier and hunter, then a soldier at the centre of a murky corporate deal, and finally a thrill-seeking killer comprising all of the above. On paper it all sounds fanciful, but Tyldum's direction holds the character and conceit together. Every time you think you can't go with a plot point, he pulls back and concentrates on making Clas threatening, thereby ensuring that we take him seriously even if we don't entirely understand him.
As I said before, Headhunters is more concerned with pacing than with substance. It doesn't contain any great insights into the world of art crime, or make any point like Killing Them Softly about how crime and big business are essentially built on identical foundations. But in spite of this it is supremely entertaining, possessing not just a good amount of pure spectacle (e.g. the truck scene) but also a number of rounded, believable characters underscored by excellent levels of tension.
Being a dark comedy, our empathy for Roger comes as much from wanting him to succeed as it does from a degree of pity for what happens to him. Aksel Hennie has the same distressed, worldly-worn look that Steve Buscemi has in Fargo, and Tyldum truly puts his character through the mill, forcing him to lug bodies around, sit on poisonous spikes, shave his head in a stream and even hide in human faeces to evade Clas early in the chase. The dark humour also extends to the supporting characters, with Ove's 'shootouts' with his favourite hooker and the recurring appearance of the two fat policemen.
The secret of Headhunters' success, as both a black comedy and a tense thriller, is its constant capacity to surprise us. Tyldum is brilliant at taking a comedic moment and turning it into a source of great tension - we go from watching Roger sink slowly into the latrine to Clas staring down at the toilet roll through which (unbeknownst to him) Roger is breathing. He also perfects this in reverse: we see Roger being followed by what he thinks is Clas' car, and he careers off the road, only to find that it was a tractor all along.
Headhunters is a brilliant darkly comic thriller which breathes new life into a sub-genre which is threatened with becoming stale. While it has a few silly or potentially ludicrous moments, it embraces its pulpy origins and uses audience familiarity to make its surprises stand out all the more. Morten Tyldum directs beautifully, with the perfect balance of terror and humour coming through with the efforts of a great cast. Above all it's a supremely entertaining piece of cinema which gives the Coen Brothers a run for their money.
Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) is a high-flying businessman who works as a headhunter. He scouts potential applicants for executive jobs. While interviewing them, he learns very useful information that leads him to his second source of income: a sideline in executing valuable art robberies. His extravagant and expensive lifestyle can't be funded by his headhunting job alone. One particular interviewee is Clas Greve (Nicolaj Coster-Waldau). He has all the credentials for a post that Brown needs to fill but he also has just inherited a piece of art that will cure all of Brown's financial woes - if he can just get his hands on it. As it turns out though, this art theft is not as simple as his previous ones and Greve is not as buttoned up as he makes out.
As this film opens we are introduced to unlikely leading actor Aksel Hennie who has an appearance that resembles the love child of Christopher Walken and Steve Buscemi. He's not your average leading man and his character is not that appealing either. He's a self-centred weasel of a man that seems to lack any morals but you know that things are, not entirely, going to go to plan for this scheming, double-crossing thief and that's exactly what captures your attention and provides the hook in this adaptation of Norwegian writer Jo Nesbo's novel. Director Morten Tyldum is wise enough to play his cards when he needs them and wrings out the suspense, masterfully, at every turn. He mounts the tension slowly before staging one gripping scene after another. The unpredictability of the spiralling plot delivers genuine excitement, helped immeasurably by natural characters and performers. Hennie in particular, is absolutely brilliant and will no doubt become a household name after this (apparently he already is, in his native Norway). Kudos to screenwriters Lars Gudmstead and Ulf Ryberg. It's their tight, deliberately paced and unpredictable script that keeps you guessing and shows a good level of intelligence. Admittedly, I haven't read the novel but if I were author Jo Nesbo, I'd be very proud of the job that has been done here.
When the headhunter becomes the headhunted, this film grips like a vice and refuses to let go. I've seen quite a few film's from Scandinavia over recent years and have been very impressed with the high standard they are delivering. This is no exception and a thriller that will definitely compete with the best of the year.
An accomplished headhunter risks everything to obtain a valuable painting owned by a former mercenary.
With the success of the likes of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Borgen and The Killing in recent years, it was only a matter of time before a Jo Nesbo novel was adapted for the big screen. This film captures the tone and style of Nesbo which will delight his hordes of fans. I wouldn't be surprised to see his Harry Hole series adapted in the near future. The film is a true thriller which had me on the edge of my seat. The first half is mostly a tense heist type of story with the second half being mostly one huge chase with a few rest bites thrown in to give those sweaty palms a break. The story is complex and interesting and made the film feel longer to me that it actually was. This isn't a bad way however and I'd happily have watched for another half an hour. The film and its lead character are very clever and this should excite the audience and leave them thoroughly satisfied.
The acting from Hennie is superb. He shows great depth and cunning as well as despair and heartbreak. It's a career performance from him. Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, best known as Jamie Lanninster from Game of Thrones to English speaking audiences is also excellent opposite Hennie. The two have a real duel in terms of the action and the acting. Coaster-Waldau is impossibly cool and suits his role to a tee. Every main character is given a fair amount of back story which really helps to give them their identity and drive. Unsurprisingly a Hollywood remake is already in the works but I'd recommend seeing the original as I can't see how having Ryan Reynolds and Kiefer Sutherland or someone similar will improve the film. It's just an excuse for lazy people not to have to read and for Hollywood studios to make money without doing anything original. This film is smart, witty and original and even has a love story at its centre. I can't recommend it highly enough.
Finally, with "Headhunters," we get a Scandinavian thriller that was not written by somebody in desperate need of anti-depressants. Even if I am generalizing, this is still definitely a twisty, sexy, and violent movie without a wasted detail. In short, it confirms something I have always suspected and shows how people can surprise you, with just the right amount of heart. Yes, the movie definitely can be more than highly improbable at times while it may be hard for some people to care about such a self-involved jackass. There is also the question about whether the movie deserves its ending but I'll be happy to look the other way with something as entertaining as this.
Jo Nesbo, the latest Scandinavian thriller writer, lifted the spirit of Fargo and Harlan Coben in his thriller Headhunters, now adapted into this superior Norwegian (!) film version. Roger Brown (where did he get such an English name?) is the small, successful, scheming headhunter who also doubles as an art thief.Brown lives over his head, has his gorgeous wife who towers over him, and a mop of ridiculous 1980's hair - so he's got to be head and shoulders above any other scalper. 'OK then,' as the Coen Brothers might say, but when he takes on the task of stealing from the hottest new prospect in town (who also owns a priceless painting he must steal), Brown's world starts to fall apart.
The wonderful Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (of Game of Thrones fame)who plays the prospect, turns out to be a sexy killer. Roger (Aksel Hennie, brilliant) has to run for his life. His whole life falls to pieces - his partner killed, his wife seduced, even his precious hair is sacrificed. Brown battles against his new and altogether superior, antagonist. Surviving the initial onslaught, the little big man plots his revenge and triumphs over his adversary in a hugely entertaining conclusion.
The only thing the film lacks is a heart. All of the protagonists are so deeply flawed, it is difficult to like anyone or believe anything. Though it is brilliantly tied up with some true romance, the fact is, when Roger triumphs, he barely changes from the wicked shit shown in the opening reel. Yes, he does give his now happy wife a baby, gets out of the art thief market, but still, goes back to the world of the headhunter with glee.
Maybe this is a small price to pay for such a supremely entertaining thriller. Next year, the inferior US re-make awaits. See the original, dark and chilly as it is.
Over the years we've had plenty of movie villains with a Napoleon complex but this could be the first instance of a hero who suffers from small man's syndrome. Hennie is excellent as a corporate headhunter obsessed by the fear of his amazonian wife leaving him for a taller man. Convinced that she only sticks around for his money he moonlights as an art thief with the help of security technician Sander. When he learns that his latest client ("Game Of Thrones" star Coster-Waldau) has an incredibly rare painting in his apartment he steals it and sets off a crazy chain of events.
Hitchcock has to be the most imitated of directors but it's rare that film-makers really capture the essence of his style. It's largely forgotten how much comedy his movies contained but this film is very much in the spirit of his lighter adventure romps, specifically "To Catch A Thief", "Saboteur" and "North By Northwest". There are several nods to the latter film; the protagonist is named Roger, he lives in a house identical to James Mason's clifftop villa, and there's an echo of the crop-duster scene, this time involving a truck. The three main characters are classic Hitch archetypes, the paranoid man on the run, the ice cool blonde who may or may not be trustworthy, and the suave villain.
The final hour is practically an extended chase sequence, directed with the swagger of a Hollywood veteran. There are laughs, there are shocks, there are moments of absolute depravity, and some of the most comical gore since "Evil Dead 2". Every time you think Tyldum is throwing something at you gratuitously it turns out to be integral to the plot. At one point I groaned when a set of overweight twin cops showed up, being the sort of quirkiness that turns me off the Coen brothers, but in the following scene you realise exactly why Tyldum made them so obese and it's a brilliant moment of twisted comedy.
It staggers me to think a movie this broad in scope came out of a country of just five million people. I live in Ireland which has a similar population and there is no way we could ever produce something this accomplished.
It's rumoured Tyldum is to direct an American remake of this, a shame really as I'm curious to see what else he has up his sleeve.