Fantastic Fest 2011: ‘Hodejegerne (Headhunters)’ an astonishingly mature, exhilarating thriller

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Headhunters

Directed by Morten Tyldum

Screenplay by Lars Gudmestad by Ulf Ryberg

2011, Norway

Summit Entertainment recently picked up the production rights to Jo Nesbo’s novel “Headhunters”. Clearly, somebody just saw Morten Tyldum’s awesome film adaptation.

Headhunters begins dubiously. The opening voice-over and montage suggest a smarmy, stylishly self-satisfied heist film, but this reveals itself (as so much in this film does) to be slight misdirection. There is much more depth here than initially indicated, with the opening not so much introducing the film at large, as introducing Roger Brown: Corporate Headhunter and art burgling hobbyist.

Roger (Aksel Hennie)  is a man with an understanding of image–that is, arrogant posturing–and he works furiously to assure his own well-constructed, and also expensive, persona. So he interviews prospective CEOs, thrilling them with his self-possession and theories on “reputation”, all the while probing them for information about important pieces of art they may or may not have stashed away at home. Then, in order to maintain the dangerously tall house of cards he calls his life, he breaks into their homes and makes off with their cultural artifacts. Also, his wife (Synnøve Macody Lund) is an art curator.

Enter Clas Greve (Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), former CEO and mercenary who has happened upon an incredibly rare piece of art in his grandmother’s old house. Which to Roger means a reprieve from his days of art thievery and a comfortable, happy, life with his wife. It would be both a disservice and incredibly long-winded to go into more. Suffice it to say that the film turns into a breathtakingly intense cat-and-mouse game.

Headhunters is a fairly convoluted film, but it’s also so expertly paced that its complexity is never apparent. Tyldum executes twists and turns like other movies execute wardrobe, and it is a joy to let the film sweep you up. At the center of all the intrigue and violence is Hennie, who paints a brilliant, intricate portrait of a man trapped deep within his image. Once Roger realizes how precarious his constructed life has become, the cracks in his facade reveal a good man, in love, who is probably too talented for his own well-being. This is a physically and emotionally exhausting performance, and Hennie nails it. All the while providing a healthy dose of wit and physical comedy. Coster-Waldau and Lund are also fantastic as Clas and Diana. Coster-Waldau uses his archetypal handsomeness and chiseled physique to craft a man of nonchalant monstrosity and Lund transforms her thankless role as Roger’s wife–trophy wife at that–into the film’s crucial emotional center.

This is an astonishingly mature, exhilarating thriller and a personal favorite at Fantastic Fest 2011. This film is watertight. And even if you aren’t surprised by the wild pivoting the film executes, you will be completely impressed by the thorough detail behind each pivot. Tyldum is not a careless man, and he relays Nesbo’s tale with careful respect. And the actors deserve equal praise for imbuing this adrenaline rush of a film with heady, grounding emotion, and refreshing playfulness. Hopefully the American version can milk as much excitement and pathos from the source material–maybe somebody call that Matt Reeves fellow?

–Emmet Duff

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