Headhunters in More Ways Than One

After last week’s terrible film, I wanted to watch a good film to wash away the bad taste left by The Snowman. Since The Snowman was based on a book by Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbo, what better film to watch and write about than another film based on a Nesbo book?

That film is Headhunters, a brilliant 2011 film from Norway. Yes, it’s a foreign film and it’s in Norwegian, which necessitates the reading of subtitles (unless you speak Norwegian of course). But this does not detract from the sheer pleasure of watching this excellent film. As with The Snowman, I haven’t read Nesbo’s book. Also, beware of spoilers.

Image: Magnolia Pictures

Headhunters has an irresistible premise. The main character is Roger Brown, a successful corporate recruiter (or headhunter, if you prefer). He is five feet six inches tall and overcompensates massively. He lives a luxurious lifestyle and his wife Diana is tall, blond, and beautiful. He showers her with expensive gifts and they live in an elegant house.

But it’s all a façade. In reality, Roger is living well outside his means. All of his accounts are overdrawn, and he keeps his financial troubles from his wife. Roger and Diana are happy together, but Diana longs for a child and Roger is reluctant to have children, for reasons that are not immediately made clear. Diana has recently opened an art gallery with financial help from Roger, which has put him even deeper in debt.

But Roger has a secret way of making money. He uses his position as a recruiter to learn personal details about people he interviews. Specifically, he finds out if they have any valuable works of art. He finds out if they’re married, have kids, housekeepers, or dogs. Once he has this information, he uses it to figure out the right time to break into their house and steal their valuable paintings.

Aiding him in this endeavor is his associate Ove Kjikerud, who works at a security company and deactivates the alarms at the homes of Roger’s marks, allowing Roger to sneak in and swap the real painting for a counterfeit. It’s a slick operation that Roger and Ove have going, but of course it all starts to fall apart.

At the opening of Diana’s new art gallery, Roger meets a friend of Diana’s named Clas Greve. Clas is a former executive of a GPS company who is interested in working for the company Roger is recruiting for. Roger doesn’t like Clas at first, since he seems a bit too friendly with Diana. But he changes his mind when Diana tells him that Clas has asked her to help him authenticate a Peter Paul Rubens painting thought to be World War II. It could be worth tens of millions.

It’s too good of an opportunity to pass up, even when Roger discovers that Clas is an expert at finding people. Before he worked at the GPS company, Clas was a member of an elite military unit that specialized in tracking people. Clas was clearly involved in some dark stuff, and has the scars on his back to prove it.

Despite his misgivings, and after a fight with Diana about having children, Roger goes to Clas’ apartment to swipe the Rubens painting. While there, he sees a group of kids playing outside. He takes out his phone to call Diana, perhaps having changed his mind about not wanting to have children. But as soon as he dials her number, he hears a phone start to ring somewhere in Clas’ apartment. He follows the sound to Clas’ bedroom, where he finds Diana’s cell phone next to the bed.

Could she be cheating on him? With Clas?

I don’t want to give too much away, because I don’t want this post to drown in plot summary and because I really want people to see this film. Headhunters is a film that is full of twists and turns, and it would take too long to summarize them all. Instead, I’m going to focus on a couple of scenes that have always stood out to me.

Image: Magnolia Pictures

From the moment that Roger swipes the painting, he is a marked man. Clas proves to be extremely adept at finding him. He’s like the damn Terminator: wherever Roger goes, Clas is not far behind. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, Roger goes to a remote cabin he and his associate Ove would use as meeting place in order to hide the painting. Roger takes the painting to the outhouse to hide it there, only to see Clas and his terrifying, enormous Pitbull arrive at the cabin. When the dog barks at the outhouse, Clas draws a weapon and advances on the outhouse. With nowhere else to hide, Roger takes refuge in the only place he can. Yep, this film gives entirely new meaning to the phrase “in the shit.” It’s disgusting but it’s also hilarious, and it’s tense as hell.

The suspense in this film will have you literally holding your breath. The first time I watched it I remember being on pins and needles the entire time, sometimes peering at the screen from behind clenched fingers. The tension is so thick you could cut it with a knife.

Other highlights include Roger, covered in filth, driving a tractor down the road in the middle of the night with Clas’ gigantic Pitbull impaled on the front of it. Or Roger’s bumbling attempts to get rid of a corpse, which turns out to not be quite as dead as he thought it was.

Or the film’s most gruesome scene, when Roger is in the back seat of a police car sandwiched between two burly police officers, and Clas rams the cop car with a semi-truck, sending it flying into a ravine. Roger winds up upside down, still sandwiched between the two very burly and now very dead police officers. Seeing Clas approaching, he smears himself with blood and plays dead. But he is unable to close his eyes before Clas reaches him, and has to keep his eyes open while Clas investigates what he thinks is Roger’s corpse. It’s a fantastic scene, one of the most riveting and nail-biting I’ve ever seen. Brilliantly, the film forces the viewer to keep their eyes open the entire time, since Clas takes his time inspecting the crash. It’s bloody and not for the faint of heart, but it’s utterly fantastic.

Afterward, Roger realizes that Clas has planted microscopic tracking devices in his hair, so he brutally shaves his head using scissors and a razor. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for Roger. He’s a bit of a cad, but watching him break down in tears as he painfully shaves his head in a ravine surrounded by corpses is downright emotional. He’s in hell, but it’s a hell of his own making, which is always the worst kind.

Roger is a fascinating protagonist. Why does he do what he does? Many of his actions are deplorable, but you could argue that he does many of them for his wife in order to make her happy. Conversely, you could argue that many of his actions are simply for the sake of his own ego and his massive need to overcompensate. He’s psychologically complex and always watchable. He’s in pretty much every scene in the movie, and he’s magnetic in all of them.

There’s a deeply touching scene late in the film between Roger and Diana. They haven’t seen each other in a while because Roger has been on the run from Clas, and when Roger finally comes home Diana welcomes him. She is heartbroken when she sees Roger bald, scarred, and wearing someone else’s clothes. She admits to her affair with Clas, and deeply regrets it. She tells Roger that she’s done with Clas. Roger is the one she wants. She loves him.

He loves her too, and finally tells her what he has been unable to tell her the entire time they have been together. He tells her that he’s scared. He’s been scared ever since he first met her. Scared that she would see what kind of person he really was, and not like it. Scared that, if they had a child, she would love the child more than him. It’s a heartbreaking revelation, and it’s easy to see that it’s a hard confession for Roger to make. It also reframes many of his actions throughout the film and makes the viewer see him in a completely different light.

Roger is played by Aksel Hennie, a Norwegian actor known to American audiences for his roles in Hercules and The Martian. In Headhunters, he gives what is probably one of my all-time favorite screen performances. The fact that all the dialogue is in Norwegian does not detract at all from Hennie’s superb acting. The movie puts Roger through the ringer time and time again, and Hennie sells every second of it.

Image: Magnolia Pictures

Clas is played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, a Danish actor best known for playing Jaime Lannister in Game of Thrones. Game of Thrones was actually filming at the same time as Headhunters, which made scheduling difficult for the film. As a result, there are long stretches of the film in which Clas does not appear, but as with any good suspense or horror film, the presence of Clas as the antagonist is strongly felt. It’s like he’s always lurking just out of frame, and when he does appear it’s all the more meaningful. Coster-Waldau is a great actor, effortlessly suave and menacing. Someone make him the villain in a James Bond movie, ASAP. Daniel Craig ain’t getting any younger.

Image: Magnolia Pictures

Finally, Diana is played by Synnove Macody Lund, in her first acting role. She was formerly a model, journalist, and even a film critic. She’s gorgeous in that statuesque Scandinavian way, and whenever she’s onscreen it’s hard to take your eyes off her. She’s soulful and intelligent, and it’s understandable that Roger would be protective of her, and maybe even intimidated by her. She’s great.

Image: Magnolia Pictures

The movie was directed by a Norwegian director named Morten Tyldum, whose next film was The Imitation Game, which earned multiple Academy Award nominations, including best picture, actor and director. He then made the controversial sci-fi film Passengers with Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence, which received a mixed reception. Headhunters is a fantastically-directed movie, and is funny, gross, touching, and nail-bitingly tense, sometimes all at the same time. It’s a tricky balancing act, but Tyldum makes it look easy.

Headhunters is the kind of film in which every small detail is important. You could probably poke holes in the story if you really wanted to, but why bother? Headhunters is a superbly-crafted thriller that easily rivals any American-made film, and is right up there among my favorite films of all time.

Coming up next week, one of the most highly-anticipated movies of the year. I’ve heard nothing but great things about it and I can’t wait to see it. It’s THOR: RAGNAROK. See you next week!