What begins as a bright and spry caper film about a short man with a predilection for art theft quickly becomes a parade of grotesqueries (caved-in skulls, crushed fingers) we’ve come to expect from the denizens of Scandinavia. It’s hard not to get whiplash from the tonal shifts.
Roger Brown is a corporate headhunter with a wife he doesn’t feel worthy of. He’s short and mousey and she’s a classic, statuesque Norwegian beauty. He compensates by asking probing questions of the people he’s recruiting for corporate leadership and using the information to steal their most valuable works of art. The art helps him pay for the lifestyle he thinks will help him keep his beautiful wife.
Think of him as Thomas Crown with a Napoleon complex.
That’s certainly the way director Morten Tyldum shoots the first 20 minutes of the film, as a quickpaced and witty series of heists that see Brown get away with pieces of art that can just barely cover his mortgage.
Investigators begin sniffing around, and there’s a sense that Headhunters will be a film about a man staying one step ahead of the law. When Brown tries to pull a job on a wealthy telecom exec, though — the kind of job that would put his financial (and thus, his spousal) problems behind him — that exec, Clas Greve (Coster-Waldau, Game of Thrones), turns out to be an ex-special forces operative who wants the job Brown is headhunting him for so badly that he’ll beat/maim/murder Brown to get it.
The film from there becomes one of the most grotesque, stomach-churning studies in carnival violence I’ve ever seen. Heads are exploded by bullets. They are exploded by boulders. Fingers are smashed to obscure their fingerprints. Dogs are impaled on hay balers. Even when Brown shaves his head to conceal his identity — a trope common in thrillers — the dull-looking safety razor he uses bites and chews his scalp to shreds.
Nothing goes right for Brown for the middle 40 minutes of the film, and most of it is nauseatingly graphic.
Exactly why Greve needs to kill Brown to pull off his takeover of the telecom is never adequately explained. Perhaps that particular nuance was lost in translation. That’s a relatively small missing link in the web that’s woven between Brown, his wife, his mistress and his pursuer, which leaves him, as in all good crime dramas, ever wondering and never quite sure who’s the spider and who is just another fly caught in the net.
HEADHUNTERS Rated R
Directed by Morten Tyldum
Starring Aksel Hennie, Synnøve Macody Lund, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau