I don’t know what they’re putting in the water in Scandinavia, but they seem to have cornered the market on well-made, gritty thrillers. Adapted from a novel by Jo Nesbø, Headhunters, Hodejegerne in the native Norwegian, is directed by Morten Tyldum, and stars Aksel Hennie, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, and Synnøve Macody Lund. Involving the world of high-class art theft, professional headhunting, and a former military tracker, Headhunters is a taut, visceral thriller from beginning to end.
Roger Brown (Hennie) works in the recruitment business, he makes and breaks careers on a daily basis. He is married to Diana (Lund), a tall, blonde, and beautiful art dealer. Roger’s insecurity over his height has led him to take on an interesting part-time job: high-class art thief. Using his legitimate job as means to gain candidates for his thefts, he uses the extra earnings to lavish his wife with expensive gifts, and pay for an extravagant house he wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise. Clas Greve (Coster-Waldau) is a former military tracker, and an ideal candidate for the position Brown is currently contracted to make his recommendation for, and he also just so happens to be the owner of an extremely valuable piece of artwork that could finance the lifestyle Brown has been accustomed to providing his wife indefinitely. Naturally, things go wrong, and Brown finds himself being hunted by Greve across Norway, as Brown begins to realize that he was just a pawn in some bigger scheme.
Brown is a bit of a weasel. He makes his living wheeling and dealing people’s livelihoods, while robbing them of their valuables on the side. His insecurity has caused him to be an emotionally unavailable husband, and led him into an affair with a woman he treats with a surprising terseness. The first mention of anything more than sex between him and his mistress leads to a quick and decisive breaking off of their arrangement. Brown is the type of man who is able to talk someone into giving him what he wants before they even realize he has asked for something. Brown also possesses no small measure of cunning, thinking his way out of the predicaments he finds himself in and willing to do just about anything to do so. Hennie is able to make Brown a likable protagonist though, and you can’t help but root for him as he struggles to keep away from the force of nature that is Greve.
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, best known for playing Jaime Lannister on HBO’s Game of Thrones, infuses Clas Greve with a sort of amiable malice. Greve is a broken man, we learn almost nothing about him, but it is clear something happened to drain him of all empathy and remorse. A scene in a locker room with Brown shows him with a back filled with lash-marks, and he only mentions that it happened in Bolivia. As Greve hunts Brown, he does so in a determined, brutal manner, with no regard for collateral damage or the lives he takes along the way. Greve the businessman is someone not to be trifled with, Greve the tracker is someone to be feared. Coster-Waldau is excellent and makes for a great, intimidating villain.
Synnøve Macody Lund as Diana is the sort of blonde actress Alfred Hitchcock used to salivate over, except for the fact that she is warm, not icy. Diana is a trophy wife, and Brown sees her as the greatest symbol of his validity as a professional, and, more importantly, his masculinity. Brown deeply cares for his wife, but his insecurities have caused him to be withholding and emotionally unavailable. Diana wants a child, Brown cringes at the thought. Lund plays her role well, being suitably desirable and supportive, but she disappears for a long stretch during the middle of the film and her role is thin.
The film has very tightly written screenplay, there is nary a scene in the film that does not contribute something into the overarching plot. The film is a bit grisly, and there is more than a little blood, but none of the violence felt forced and none was it was unrealistic, contrived perhaps, but not unrealistic. The plotting is a bit shaky, and the method by which all of the subplots were resolved would probably fall apart if someone at it too intensely, but that is not a huge issue. The film never allows the audience the time to ponder the plot, it is so tightly constructed that the tension never stops building until the climax.
Headhunters remembered to include an element absolutely necessary to a properly thrilling thriller: a suitable score. The score may not be a musical masterpiece, but it manages to keep the film tense from beginning to end, which is very important in this type of film. The film is, in many ways, reminiscent of the thriller genre prior to its becoming bogged down with the Hollywood system. The film is chock full of thrills, but they don’t spring from contrivances of the plot: they develop naturally from character development and interaction. The thrills are visceral, and they are also earned. It has fallen into cliché to say that old school is better than new school, but in this instance the adage rings true.
Headhunters, or Hodejegerne for any Norwegians out there, is a tightly written, well-acted thriller that derives its suspense from character, rather than from special effects and explosions. It may not do anything new with the form, and the resolution may be a bit too neatly wrapped up, but just about everything the film does, it does extremely well. It is a worthy addition to the critically acclaimed, gritty thrillers Scandinavia has been releasing lately, and is well worth the watch.