Review: Headhunters

'Swift and fun and violent and entertaining... Provides the thrill that I've been missing from American movies...'

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani


Thanks to the success of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (and I refer to the original Swedish film version here), I imagine we shall be seeing many of these Scandinavian thrillers making their way to American theaters. There is something comforting about this. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, after all – and this holds true of Headhunters as well – was an airport novel through-and-through. The seedy characters, the violent outbursts, the melodramatic plotting, the ever-so-slight trashiness. All smacked of a very particular brand of easily-consumed modern pulp book. I haven't read the original novels for either Girl (which was, by all outside accounts, better than most books of its ilk) or Headhunters, but I could tell, watching both movies, that they were based on books one would buy while waiting for a flight.

I say this is refreshing, as American films seems to have skewed away from this sort of thriller. After John Grisham fell out of Hollywood's sights, the trashy, high profile crime adventure seems to have vanished. I kind of miss this oddball subgenre. There weren't many great ones, but their regularity and predictable unpredictability was something as reliable as the tides. We probably wouldn't know who Ashley Judd was, were it not for this subgenre.

So there was a nostalgic thrill to watching the Norwegian double-cross Headhunters, directed by Morten Tyldum, and based on the novel by Jo Nesbø. The story is new, and yet felt familiar. Like listening to a song you hadn't heard in years.

Headhunters is about a man named Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) who is the most charming type of scoundrel. He makes his living as a talent scout for super-rich international corporations, and breezily exploits his position by badgering his prospects. He is only 5'6” (which he mentions several times) and compensates for his short stature by dating a gorgeous tall blonde model (Synnøve Macody Lund), having affairs (!), and supplementing his income by sneaking into potential clients' houses and stealing valuable paintings: Roger teams up with a shiftless security guard (Kyrre Haugen Sydness), who can shut off security cameras by remote, and he carefully removes famous paintings, replacing them with cheap copies, often made with a Xerox machine. The mechanics of his heists is impeccably depicted, and the heist segments are expertly handled.

Needless to say, Roger will become embroiled in some intrigue involving a handsome client named Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who may be having an affair with Diana, and who may be sitting on a painting worth 100 million kroner, and who may be chasing him down to kill him for unknown reasons.

I can't give away any other plot details, but, needless to say, events escalate, some people are killed, identities are swapped, and our charming antihero will find himself in increasingly impossible positions. Eventually, he'll have to hide in an outhouse toilet to avoid detection, and that's before some of the more violent events. Yes, the violence also steadily increases, until we see dog getting impaled, and blood getting spilled. So prepare yourself for bleeding wounds and crushed faces.

Headhunters is swift and fun and violent and entertaining. The script is clever, and only strays into implausibility out of genre necessity. Headhunters may not be commenting on wealth or corruption or feminism (which only the best of the genre can do), but it does provide a thrill that I've been missing from American movies. Here is a film, provided by Norway, that rids itself of unnecessary over-stylization, and just tells a twisted story well. For that, I commend it.