Sunday, April 22, 2012

Headhunters (2011)

Original title: Hodejegerne

Corporate headhunter Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) needs a lot of money to finance his costly lifestyle and try to buy the affection of his wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund) by financing her career as an art dealer, definitely more than even the job as the proverbial asshole in a suit can make him.

To stay affluent, our rather immoral hero has found an interesting side job. During his interviews with other assholes in suits, he finagles information about the security of their homes and the state of their art collections out of them, and then proceeds - with the help of security firm drone Ove Kjikerud (Eivind Sander) - to rob them of the highlights of said art collections.

This goes rather well for Roger until he meets Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), square-jawed pretty-man, co-developer of a nano tracing agent and former special forces soldier. Apart from being much too perfect for comfort, Greve also owns a Rubens painting that's believed to be lost that he wants Diana to appraise for him. The painting makes Greve an irresistible target for Roger even though his background fairly screams "Do not fuck with this guy".

When Roger breaks into Greve's apartment he finds the painting alright, but he also finds Diana's cell right in the bedroom. It's the sort of thing to drive a man like Roger who's desperately trying to hide his inferiority complex behind a wall of money batty, though, seeing as he has just ended an extra-marital affair of his own, he really isn't in a position to complain.

From this point on, Roger's life - always more like a dance on a knife's edge - unravels with ever increasing speed, for Greve is neither the kind of guy who let's himself be robbed, nor somebody who cares about killing anyone who might get in his way (and any bystanders if he feels like it). Soon enough, Roger is on the run, yet Greve somehow manages to find him wherever he turns. Roger not only has to avoid a guy who is an actual sociopath (in contrast to himself, who only ever aspired to be one), but also learns the truths behind the lies he built his life on.

Director Morten Tyldum's Headhunters (based on a novel by Jo Nesbø) is quite the film. Call me conceited, but I didn't exactly peg Norway as a country suited to coming up with the next great chase thriller with fine side-lines in black humour and paranoia. As is so often the case, I was wrong, and have now found chase thriller nirvana in form of a Norwegian movie.

The most important element in this sort of film is obviously a sense of pacing. Tyldum starts his film up at a merry jog, quickly establishing the characters and the basic situation while still showing complexities that will become important during the course of the movie. With things being established, the film fastly moves on to the first crisis point, escalates from there with incredible style and verve, all the while going through often exceedingly clever, always exceedingly well-timed twists and turns, never letting the tension drop for a second even when the running and the violence stop for a moment - for that's when the paranoia steps up to the plate. In that respect, Headhunters is very close to genre-companions made in the 70s, but instead of trying to be retro, Tyldum's film uses contemporary filmmaking techniques without looking like a tech demonstration or a bad video clip.

As if that weren't enough (and really, being clever and perfectly paced would be enough to recommend the film highly), Headhunters also manages the difficult trick of building up its protagonist as a complete jerk, yet still letting the audience root for him. At first, I found something grimly satisfying at seeing Roger's life unravel, but the further the story developed, and the more Roger lost, the more I began rooting for him, and the - formerly buried - humanity his reactions to his plight revealed. Much of my reaction is based on Aksel Hennie's performance that shows the frail humanity Roger hides behind his asshole attitude without ever actually making him nice. The character's psychology is actually a bit too simple for my tastes (too many writers - for the screen or not - love to motivate everything about a character through one single Big Thing - something that's clearly useful for plotting reasons, but that I don't believe to be true for actual human beings; and that thing about stripping a character of everything they have to reveal their humanity isn't exactly new either), yet in the hands of Hennie - and the excellent foils the rest of the cast make for him - this simplicity seems grounded in more complex feelings and reasons.

So, all in all, it's pretty fair to describe Headhunters as "awesome". It is, after all, a fantastic chase thriller that also happens to have its heart in the right place.


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