By Brian Lafferty
May 4, 2012 (San Diego) – Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) is not your typical thief. In fact, he’s your typical man. You would never guess that this meek, average businessman is a master art thief so skilled at his craft that he leaves not a single trace of evidence behind. Hennie, at first, does too good a job; his character is undistinguished to the point where he is dangerously close to being too hard to buy.
I let the movie unfold further. Soon enough, a rationale behind this seemingly unconventional acting approach emerged. It’s one of Headhunter’s many twists, turns, and a-ha moments.
Roger is a corporate headhunter (an informal term for a hiring recruiter) who steals priceless art from his interviewees to finance (actually impose) a lavish lifestyle for his trophy wife (Synnove Macody Lund). His next target is Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, from TV’s Game of Thrones), a former mercenary who Roger learns owns a Peter Paul Rubens painting. He handily steals the painting, and that appears to be the end of it.
Not so fast. The sly, ruthless Clas plays a deadly game of cat and mouse with Roger, whom he aggressively pursues like a starving lion hunting a zebra.
The screenplay has more twists than a city paved entirely with Lombard Streets. Trying to correctly guess what happens next is like trying to beat Bobby Fischer in chess. I’m not averse to predictability in cinema, but it’s always a pleasant surprise to see a director and screenwriter break a screenplay out of its comfort zone.
Few cat and mouse plots can work without honest suspense. By honest, I mean the non-manufactured kind. The kind that makes my heart race, or makes me feel on edge or uneasy for an extended length of time. To paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock’s “bomb under the table” analogy, would it be scarier to watch a tarantula with a lethal bite crawl up a man’s leg ever so slowly for an uncomfortably long length of time, not knowing when it will unleash its venom? Or would you rather the tarantula just bite the guy and kill him?
In one sequence, Clas slams the police car holding Roger off a cliff. The officers are dead and Roger is upside down, stuck in his seat belt. When Clas approaches, Roger is forced to play possum, keeping his eyes open, trying not to move a single muscle. At this point, it gets intense. If he blinks, he’s dead. Even though it was obviously too early for Roger to die, that didn’t stop my heart from pounding me into the ground.
Then I discovered my eyes were drying and my body was hurting. I wasn’t moving at all! There’s something about seeing a person trying to lie completely motionless that makes my body ache. After what seemed like an excruciatingly long time (I could not have lasted so long without blinking like Roger does), Clas steps away. My body relaxed, and my heartbeat restored itself to its normal, unnoticeable rhythm.
In many movies the protagonist changes. Seeing this meek, plain, Average Joe transform the way he does is like watching a participant a social experiment. “Change” is too generic a term in Roger’s case. Metamorphosis is more like it.
Headhunters is now playing at the Landmark Hillcrest.
A Magnolia Pictures release. Director: Morten Tyldum. Screenplay: Lars Gudmestad and Ulf Ryberg, from the novel by Jo Nesbo. Cinematography: John Andreas Andersen. Cast: Aksel Hennie, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Synnove Macody Lund, and Julie R. Olgaard. 100 minutes. Rated R. In Norwegian and Danish with English subtitles.