Flat out surprises like Headhunters is one of the main reasons I attend festivals; a gem that pops seeming out of the blue (at least to North American audiences) and sets the bar for quality genre thrills. The mechanics of a good crime thriller, Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing for instance, should involve communicating all of the pertinent details to the audience in ways both obvious and subtle and then using those details (and accompanying expectations) for the purpose of complete surprise. A good call-back, not unlike a stand up comedy routine, for further surprise can elevate a film from good to great. This glossy Norwegian film has all this and more. It takes its power suit wearing, mistress abusing, asshole – truly a hard protagonist to root for – and puts him through a river of shit of his own design, and has come out the other side as an audience favourite. Things are executed with a precise measuring of logic, reason and style.
Roger Brown by day is a corporate headhunter looking for a new CEO of GPS technology conglomerate Pathfinder. His interviews with candidates involve a speech about the power of a solid reputation. Small talk veers towards cultural tastes, specifically art, and whether or not they like or own dogs. It is all neat and efficient, even if Roger lays the process out with the smug condescending tone of one in power in a corporate situation. But there is an alternate purpose, while these would-be CEOs are at the arranged interview with Pathfinder Roger dons a courier uniform and robs them of the very valuable paintings they indicated to him. With the help of a home security installer (with a weakness for guns and Russian prostitutes), and an art forger who is efficient enough at making replacement substitutes that would make Elmyr de Hory proud, Roger has a lucrative second income. An income he dumps into his lavish modernist home, impulsive jewelry purchases and start-up capital for his tall, blonde and intelligent wife Diane’s nascent art gallery. In a coincidence that should raise eyebrows, a friend of Diane, and the former CEO of another GPS firm, Clas, comes to Roger looking for the Pathfinder position and is in possession of a Peter Paul Rubens’ acrylic valued at $100 million dollars. This sets Roger in action for the biggest score of his cat burglar career until everything goes completely wrong. At one point the slick corporate operator is up to his eyeballs in shit – literally.
Director Morten Tyldum has the ability to drop so many casual, almost negligent, details into the mix and then cleverly start layering them all together without any instance of letting up the pace. It is a showcase of escalation. He only ‘flashes back’ once to remind the audience of a particular detail, but otherwise he trusts us to keep up or fill in a blank or two between reveals. He also a flair for intense (but measured) bursts of violence, not unlike the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men although things also occasional veer into the absurd “what the hell is going on?” territory of Burn After Reading. Headhunters is a perfect blend of cautious planning, earnest intent, and amusing comedic detachment. It shows off a noirish cynicism for peoples bad behavior when greed and power is at stake, but has the good sense to dangle the carrot of redemption to Roger after he is put through the wringer. Empathy can be a hard thing to generate in these sorts of films, and Tyldum does it with panache. Max Manus star Askel Hennie goes through some amazing physical metamorphoses as Roger is forced to think very quick on his feet and deal with criminals, cops and violent confrontations. This is exactly what Headhunters accomplishes in its 100 minutes. You might think you have spotted a flaw or two in its logic, but rest assured, the screenplay is ahead of you. Blessed is the film that sets its traps and springs its surprises with good screenwriting.