This is a reprint of our review from the London Flim Festival in 2011.
For fans of the crime genre, both on the page and on the screen, Scandinavia has been the hottest source of new material in recent years (although obviously not literally). Steig Larsson's Millennium trilogy was a huge bestseller worldwide, and has already provided three Swedish films and David Fincher's remake "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo," while Kenneth Branagh has had great success on TV as Henning Mankell's "Wallander," and Danish series "The Killing" proved a huge hit at home and in the U.K, and was remade on AMC under the same name.
The latest hot ticket is Jo Nesbø, a Norwegian former journalist who sprung to fame with a series of novels focusing on Detective Harry Hole, a loose canon in the Oslo police force. The first of those books to break out internationally, "The Snowman," is heading to the screen, courtesy of Working Title, but his first to hit the screens is a home-grown adaptation of "Headhunters," a 2008 stand-alone novel, directed by Morten Tyldum, which has been doing the festival rounds, playing Locarno, Toronto and Fantastic Fest before landing at the BFI London Film Festival, where it has its U.K. premiere tonight.
Against the grain of the bulk of Nesbø's work, it's not a procedural, but instead a dark spiraling thriller vaguely reminiscent of the Coen Brothers' more noirish efforts, particularly thanks to a lacing of black comedy throughout. Roger (Aksel Hennie) is the titular headhunter; he specializes in finding candidates for jobs at some of Norway's top corporations, and no one's better at it than him. Despite his short stature (he's only five foot five), he's married the beautiful Lotte (Julie Ølgaard), but, terrified of losing her, lavishes her with expensive gifts that even his comfortable lifestyle can't afford, and so subsidizes his income by stealing art from the homes of his clients, something he's gotten down to a fine science.
When he meets a recent arrival from Denmark, former CEO Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, best known for his work in the original "Nightwatch," and more recently for his excellent performance as Jaime Lannister on HBO's "Game of Thrones"), he sees the chance not only to land the executive a top new job, but also to rob him of a multi-million dollar painting. But the robbery doesn't quite go as planned, and when it turns out that Greve is a former special forces soldier, and psychotic to boot, Roger is forced to flee for his life.
David Fincher, when discussing his take on 'Dragon Tattoo,' said something along the lines of wanting to make a Swedish movie version of the novels, with a perfectly serviceable Hollywood-style take already existing in Niels Arden Oplev's 2009 film. And one imagines that Summit, who've picked up the remake rights to "Headhunters," might feel the same when they get round to it: Tyldum's film is as slick and pacy as any Hollywood thriller, continuing the trend of European takes on the genre, like "Point Blank" and "Tell No One," beating the U.S. at their own game. The film rattles along, never boring its audience, and there's more than one memorable set piece — we're sure that it's only a matter of time before the director joins the exodus and signs on to make a big Hollywood picture.
But the trouble is, while the story might be slick, it's also pretty hollow. Maybe it's the corporate world in which Roger moves, maybe it's the barren landscape against which it's set, but it all feels like the kind of tricksy game that might keep you entertained as a beach read, and feels lacking on the big screen. Part of the problem is that Roger's so unlikable to begin with; materialistic, unfaithful and kind of creepy. Hennie does a good job at making him sympathetic as the film goes on, but it's perhaps a little too late by that point; you enjoy the twists and turns, certainly, but you don't necessarily care what happens.
The Roger problem is a microcosm of the film's biggest issue; Tyldum wants to have his cake and eat it too. "Headhunters" flirts with being a kind of enjoyably nasty wringer of its character, a sort of Nordic "Shallow Grave" or "Blood Simple." And it is nasty, make no mistake. Sometimes in a good way; sympathetic characters are offed unrelentingly, and the lashings of gore make "Drive" look squeamish in comparison. Sometimes, however, it's a little too much, with a faint whiff of misogyny hanging around its female characters, who can be neatly divided at either side of the Frank Miller saint/whore spectrum.
But the film also tries to be a sort of morality tale, softening up its issues as it goes along, and it falls between two stools as a result. It doesn't help that there are gaping plot holes aplenty, making the conclusion feel muddled and rushed. Fans of the genre will certainly have fun across its brisk running time, but aside from a few memorable sequences — a gruesome car crash, and a surprising attempt to dispose of a body — it's unlikely to linger long in the memory. [C]