There was only one film I didn’t make it into at Fantastic Fest last year: the Nordic thriller Headhunters. Even with a press pass, I was left to bleed in the stand-by line. I ended up seeing a Japanese musical-pink film about a cheeky, mythical sea turtle – so, win-win in my book. Graciously, the Florida Film Fest recently screened Headhunters – so I was redeemed. And I was floored. Based on Norwegian crime writer Jo NesbÃ¸‘s novel of the same name, Headhunters is an expertly crafted crime thriller that doesn’t rest on any genre crutches and presents a stylistic, complex look at the well-worn subjects of revenge, insatiable greed, and devotion.
Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) is an accomplished corporate “headhunter”; a recruiter who pre-screens candidates for high-paying positions. He’s a smooth bastard who compensates for his short stature with a mountain of charisma and a continent of debt. He owns a $30 million dollar house he can’t afford and racks up more debt every month – all to keep up appearances for his wife Diana, an art gallery owner, and the socialites she rolls with. Unbeknownst to his wife, Roger supplements his lavish lifestyle by stealing valuable art from the very same job candidates he screens in his 9 to 5. He’s a much better art thief than he is a husband. Roger’s world spirals out of control after his wife befriends ex-military playboy Clas Greve (Game of Throne‘s Nikolaj Coster-Waldau).
When Diana tells Roger that Clas has an incredibly rare Rubens painting stolen by Germans during WWII, the gears of greed start turning in Roger’s mind. He can’t help himself. With the aid of his partner and security expert Brede, the two attempt the biggest score of their lives – the one that could pull Roger out of debt forever. Things turn sour quick during the heist and Roger is hurled into a cat-and-mouse throwdown for his life, marriage, and sanity. No one said stealing priceless art from an ex-military tracking expert was going to be a walk in the park.
Aksel Hennie is perfect as Roger. His short stature and cartoon-baby eyes make him the perfect wolf in sheep’s clothing. Early in the film, he presents his philosophy on the most important thing a man can have = reputation. This whole ideology is the root of his desire for endless wealth. He’s a charming villain, but never comes off as a scumbag or overly slimy. He’s not without his insecurities though and that’s what makes him the most likeable character in a film populated entirely by bad guys.
The suspense in Headhunters is ridiculous. Whether he’s hiding in a toilet or playing possum, you never think Roger has a chance. There’s a solid 30 to 40 minutes where it never lets up and it’s like a vice grip on your throat. Just when you think the film has climaxed and Roger is a goner, you’re allowed to catch your breath. There’s even a nice little epilogue of sorts that feels well deserved rather than forced. This kind of pacing in a film isn’t easy to pull off, but director Morten Tyldum does it flawlessly. The cinematography is sleek but never over-stylized like it is in most big budget crime films with all of their MTV editing and such.
You’ll be hard pressed to find a more well crafted, darkly comedic thriller this year. Wonderfully paced, shot, and acted, Headhunters a perfect storm of the genre, while also transcending it. An absolute can’t miss. Opening in NY and LA April 27 from Magnolia Pictures. For a list of theaters and dates, click here.