Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) is not satisfied with his stature as a skilled headhunter for his company. Standing at only 1.68 meters tall, which translates in U.S. figures to around 5’5”, he needlessly suffers from an inferiority complex, one that drives him to spend money he doesn’t have on lavish gifts for his wife, Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund), who’s not only indisputably beautiful but also taller than he is. It might appear as if she appreciates what he’s doing, but deep down, she isn’t as swayed by material things. All she really wants is to have a baby. Roger stubbornly avoids the issue, although it isn’t immediately made clear why. To finance the lifestyle he believes is making his wife happy, he lives a double life as an art thief. He has a very precise set of rules, and he uses them every time he breaks into someone’s home, removes the art from its frame, and replaces it with a very convincing imitation.
On the night Diana opens her new art gallery in the middle of Oslo, she introduces Roger to Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a Danish-Dutchman who was once an elite soldier and a mercenary. Now the senior manager for an advanced electronics company, he seems to be the ideal candidate for a position in Roger’s company. Roger soon learns that Clas is in possession of a painting by Rubens, one so valuable that it’s easily worth tens of millions. If Roger could steal it, it would solve his mounting financial problems and enable him to continue his expensive lifestyle. With the help of his sex-addicted friend, a security guard named Ove (Eivind Sander), he breaks into Clas’ apartment, which he claimed was an inheritance from his grandmother. Things take an unexpected turn when Roger finds Diana’s cell phone on the bedroom floor.
Headhunters, adapted from the novel by Jo Nesbø, is a taut and strangely engrossing crime thriller. Just when you think you know where it’s heading, it veers into an entirely new direction and gives us a whole new set of circumstances to feel tense over. Don’t be fooled by its seemingly random sequence of events; this story has some surprises in store, ones that may not be remotely plausible but are so cleverly written that we can willingly overlook the technicalities. Here is a film that doesn’t pressure us into suspending disbelief. The pacing, structure, and characterization are such that we find ourselves swept into the narrative. I didn’t know where it would go, but I knew I wanted to stay and find out. And even if the epilogue is merely a tying up of loose ends, you have to marvel at the intricacy of the knotting.
Although not a horror movie, the film does occasionally indulge in morbid imagery. I did mention it was a crime thriller, right? The genre comes affixed with certain hallmarks, not the least of which is blood. Headhunters has its fair share of blood, but it doesn’t end there. After a car accident, for example, we must endure two revealing shots of a body with the face smashed into an unrecognizable pulp. And then there’s the moment when Roger must save himself by immersing his entire body, head and all, in a pit full of human excrement. In a way, this is kind of funny; Roger is literally and figuratively in deep you-know-what. Indeed, the filmmakers do dabble in moments of perverse humor, as evidenced when Ove and his beloved Russian prostitute playfully shoot at each other completely naked.
We’re often challenged to determine where Diana’s loyalties lie, as it seems she has been having an affair with Clas. True enough, he is charming and incredibly handsome. But behind his rugged good looks and devilish smile lies a lethal killing machine, something Roger finds out the hard way. This isn’t to suggest that Roger is innocent. He too has been having an affair with a woman named Lotte (Julie Ølgaard). It’s obvious that it’s purely physical, and in all likelihood, it’s yet another extension of Roger’s inferiority complex. When he decides to end their relationship, Lotte becomes curiously clingy. What more could she possibly want with him? Why does she insist on talking with him in his car just as he exits a parking garage?
The word “edgy” is thrown around all too often, but there most certainly is an edge to Headhunters. I can’t help but wonder how much will be rounded off when and if the planned Hollywood remake comes to fruition. It doesn’t surprise me that such a thing is being considered; the story has international appeal, not just because of its marketability as a crime thriller, but also because of its intriguing plot and characters. Perhaps we’re looking at this year’s answer to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. In any case, the original Norwegian film deserves to be seen, for it’s a well-crafted work of suspense. It’s also a fairly decent character study, Roger being surprisingly sympathetic in spite of his distorted body image and misplaced faith in material wealth. We want him to see that he has everything he needs and that there’s no shame in being only 1.68 meters tall.