Headhunters starts out like one of those enjoyably preposterous thrillers about rich white guys that might have starred James Spader or Michael Douglas in the 1990s. By film’s end, we’re deep into Coen brothers territory, with an extra splash of Sam Raimi-level gore.
Like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Let the Right One In, this Norwegian import has already been earmarked for a Hollywood remake, and they won’t need to change much. What’s gotten in the Scandinavian snow that’s generating so much diabolical creativity?
The movie centers on Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), a hotshot corporate headhunter who moonlights as an art thief, raiding the homes of the prospective employees he interviews. He needs the extra cash to please the whims of his gorgeous wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund), who has expensive tastes and is so beautiful Roger always frets she’ll leave him.
This is already a fairly ridiculous set-up, and director Morten Tyldum breezes through it quickly, letting you know he’s up to something more with the movie, so be patient. Roger’s next mark is Clas (Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a former special forces soldier who has recently moved to Oslo and just inherited a Rubens worth millions. Naturally, Roger takes an interest in the painting. A trap is sprung. Several, actually.
Adapted from the novel by Jo Nesbø, Headhunters is always two steps ahead of you: Tyldum fools you into thinking you know what’s going to happen next. But you really don't. The movie has a prankish sense of humor, too: When a cat suddenly jumps into the frame for one of those ancient cheap jolts, you can tell he's literally been thrown by someone off-camera.
Headhunters isn’t one of those narrative pretzels that throws out plot twists for their own sake: There is a cruel, comic logic to how Roger’s life begins to spiral out of control (Fargo is the most obvious influence here). The smug and arrogant Clas is obviously trouble from the moment we meet him: The only mystery is his motive.
The film’s bigger surprise rests in Roger, our increasingly harried hero, played by Hennie with an empathetic desperation that makes him impossible to write off as a chump. Roger isn’t necessarily a nice guy, but he’s learning the errors of his ways, and he’s trying to change. By repeatedly dropping this lying thief into dire predicaments that require increasingly desperate measures, Headhunters argues that white-collar corporate culture is a game of survival — and only the most ruthless survive.
Cast: Aksel Hennie, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Synnøve Macody Lund, Eivind Sander.
Director: Morten Tyldum.
Screenwriters: Lars Gudmestad, Ulf Ryberg. Based on the novel by Jo Nesbø.
Producers: Marianne Gray, Asle Vatn.
A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 100 minutes. In Norwegian and Danish with English subtitles. Vulgar language, bloody violence, gory, sexual situations, adult themes. Opens Friday June 1 in Miami-Dade only: Tower.