Headhunters (2011)

3

I’ve never been much of a betting man, but if somebody offered me stakes on the likelihood of Headhunters being marketed as, From The Studio That Brought You “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo“, by the time it finds a UK distributor, I’d put my £100 on the table right now. Of course, that tagline will soon be associated with David Fincher’s 2011 Dragon Tattoo remake, rather than Niels Arden Oplev’s 2009 original, and the same marketing strategy will be used when Headhunters is given its own (inevitable) US makeover. It’s a sad cycle, but money talks and Hollywood listens. That’s why its creative well has run dry. But there’s still a reason to rejoice dear readers, for Tyldum’s film, based on Jo Nesbø’s bestselling 2008 novel, is a barnstorming success – an absurd Norwegian noir which never takes its foot off the pedal, and left me gasping for breath by its conclusion.

Roger (Aksel Hennie) is a professional headhunter struggling to maintain his wealthy lifestyle, believing that his trophy wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund) will leave him if he doesn’t constantly shower her with gifts (his 1.68m height is also a concern). What she doesn’t know is that he’s swiftly approaching bankruptcy, and moonlights as an art thief in order to keep her happy with jewelry and a dream home. Diana introduces Roger to Clas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), an ex-mercenary and former CEO of Dutch GPS firm HOTE. It is revealed that Clas owns a rare Rubens’ painting – The Calydonian Boar Hunt – and suddenly all of Roger’s financial woes seem close to resolve. Except that people start dying, infidelities are exposed and our sweaty protagonist begins to slip into a literal pool of shit (yes, literal)…

When I came out of the press screening I was convinced that Headhunters was the most fun I’d had at the festival so far. It’s exhilaratingly paced, tightly plotted and shot through with an obsidian black sense of humour, clocking in at a neat 100 minutes (too many contemporary thrillers outstay their welcome). In my opening paragraph I mentioned that it was absurd, but Tyldum’s film fully embraces its own silliness and enjoys ramping it up with an ever-increasing degree of confidence. It shape-shifts between styles, making you howl with laughter at a scene of wince-inducing gore (smashed heads are a frequent sight). Its genre is strictly noir, showcasing a classic man-on-the-run setup, but it also has scenes of dramatic poignancy. There’s more crammed into these 100 minutes than any thriller I can remember from the last five years, and I had an absolute blast. But then the film settled in and I gave thought to its deeper themes. I gave thought to its screenplay and performances. And I’ve come to the conclusion that this is much more than just a slick, sick ride through the dark depths of the Norwegian art scene…

Like every great film I’ve seen this year (Malick’s Tree Of Life, Sorrentino’s This Must Be The Place), this one has grown on me in the days since my first viewing, when all of its composite elements have fallen into place. The job of a film critic is really to discuss, in depth, the reasons why a film does and doesn’t work, analyzing the mise-en-scène and other such technical waffle. When we sit down and have fun with a movie we can often forget to look for things to be sniffy about, and Headhunters provides such a problem for me. I was so absorbed in the tale that I forgot to look at the craft. Of course, the fact that I never noticed the craft means that it was working on an exceptional level – the music, lighting and editing coalesced into a consistent vision. I bet Headhunters has a really great score, and effectively moody photography. I honestly can’t remember, because these elements worked for me on a subliminal level; they were part of the bigger picture.

I can’t recommend this film enough. At around the halfway point I began to have doubts about the trajectory we were on. I was concerned that Tyldum had played his ace card, and we were going to slip into a predictable chase thriller. But then, and I shall say no more than this, there’s a scene involving a dog and a tractor. I’d forgotten cinema could deliver scenes like that. I’d forgotten it could make me laugh so hard, grip my seat with excitement and feel so many conflicting emotions for a character. I’d forgotten cinema’s primary function: to entertain. Headhunters fulfills that function with aplomb, and I can’t wait to see what Tyldum does next.

Director: Morten Tyldum
Writers: Lars Gudmestad, Ulf Ryberg
Stars: Aksel Hennie, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Synnøve Macody Lund
Runtime: 101 minutes
Country: Norway

Film Rating: ★★★★☆

3 Comments
  1. Kevin Matthews says

    Jo Nesbo is one of my new favourite authors (having read The Snowman, which was fantastic, and also listened to the man at the Edinburgh Book Festival) so I am pleased to hear a positive review of this film. Looking forward to seeing it myself at some point. 🙂

  2. Tue Sorensen says

    I completely agree with Mike. 8 stars it is – very much a positive surprise!

  3. Chris Knipp says

    An excellent review. I’ve just seen it, and share many, maybe most, of your views. I’m not sure I’m ready to consider it on a scale with Tree of Life, but I’ll have to ponder it as you suggest.

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