Director: Morten Tyldum
Cast: Aksel Hennie, Synnøve Macody Lund, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Julie R. Ølgaard, Kyrre Haugen Sydness, Reidar Sørensen, Nils Jørgen Kaalstad
Films tend to define themselves in their opening moments. The photography, the dialogue, the music, and other elements help to establish the tone and style, previewing what’s to come in the ensuing ninety to one hundred and twenty minutes. When a film becomes something entirely different than what it appears to be in its first scene, it can be jarring and disjointed. Yet when a film manages a seamless and subtle transition from one genre to an entirely separate one, it’s disarming in the best possible way, indicating exemplary competency in all of its modes and creating a fascinating and layered cinematic experience.
The new Norwegian film Headhunters opens with Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) dryly explaining his life and his career, describing how his extraordinarily gorgeous and tall wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund) is a clear sign that he’s compensating for something. Roger shows his ruthlessness while conducting an interview, demeaning his subject and manipulating him to his advantage. Roger also reveals a surprising double life, breaking into homes (often those of his interview subjects) and replacing expensive works of art with passable replicas. Roger’s already interesting existence becomes infinitely more intense as a meeting with a respected businessman, Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, currently starring as Jamie Lannister on Game of Thrones), leads down a precarious road that sends a frantic Roger running for his life.
The stylized comedy gradually morphs into a carefully controlled thriller, in which Roger is the ultimate everyman on the run, though it’s evident that the way he thinks helps him to stay one step ahead of his pursuers, against all odds. Headhunters reveals itself in an unsuspecting manner, telling its story through Roger’s eyes without filling in the larger picture, taking it one lie, one act of infidelity, one murder at a time. Such a strategy is smart, since Roger is more intelligent and conniving than your average protagonist, and to see him scramble to stay alive is marvelous.
Watching foreign films is almost always enticing since the actors, for the most part, are unrecognizable. The two that American audiences might now, Coster-Waldau and Joachim Rafaelsen, who appeared in last year’s Happy Happy and has a small role here as a cop, do a wondrous job of blending in to the background. Hennie is stellar as Roger, imbuing him with an overconfidence and snootiness that doesn’t quite eclipse the pitiful look on his face when he looks longingly at his wife, who wants to start a family, something for which he is utterly unprepared. At times, it’s difficult to tell whether he is supposed to be the hero or the villain, and the film expressly doesn’t clarify. He fares well as he must adapt to his newfound situation, and his transformation is realistic and a wonder to watch, as he fails to become much more likeable as his fortune becomes worse and worse.
Headhunters is exquisitely shot, drawing out the colors and costumes of its characters and their surroundings. The editing is sharp and strong, and the story feels engaging and complete as a result. Its structure is smooth and polished, and there isn’t a moment in which the film lags or drags. The script, based on the novel by Jo Nesbo, deserves much praise, since it weaves together such an creative and energetic plot with magnificent characters. It makes sense that this film is already slated to be remade in the United States, since it’s just the latest thriller, in the tradition of Tell No One and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, to spice up the genre and present something wholly original and awesome that’s impossible not to find invigorating and enthralling.
Written by Abe Fried-Tanzer