GREAT FILMS: Headhunters (2012)

Headhunters (Norway, 2012)
Directed by Morten Tyldum
Starring Aksel Hennie, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Synnøve Macody Lund, Julie Ølgaard

In the aftermath of Stieg Larsson's Millennium trilogy, there has been an explosion of interest in Scandinavian thrillers and crime dramas. The popularity of Borgen, Wallander and The Killing (amongst others) has also led to a number of English-language adaptations, with Kenneth Branagh starring in the acclaimed remake of Wallander and David Fincher helming his own version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
As with all trends, however, it doesn't take long for the cutting-edge to become a cliché. The fact that Midsummer Murders is one of the most popular programmes in Denmark suggests that the popularity of Scandinavian crime stories lies more in a fascination with cultural differences than any inherent difference in quality. Words like 'bleak' and 'gritty' have become redundant descriptors for these stories, and for all their merits, their general pervasion leaves you crying out for something different. All of which brings us to Headhunters, a great little thriller which takes the gritty, stylish aesthetic of these stories and douses it with a lot of dark humour.
Purely from a technical standpoint, Headhunters is one of the most breathless and efficient thrillers in the post-Bourne era. Its first half hour in particular is frenetic, with its need to set up all the plot points trumped by its greater need to keep the story and action barrelling along at a break-neck pace. But unlike the many Bourne imitators, who have misinterpreted and misused Paul Greengrass' aesthetic, the film is not needlessly flashy in its shooting style. There is some hand-held stuff during the scenes in the woods, but otherwise there are plenty of tripods to go round.
Because of this breathlessness, Headhunters avoids one of the big traps of the crime thriller genre - namely the belief that a bleak, forbidding atmosphere can only be achieved by slow pacing. The film does slow down at certain points, allowing the more intimate moments to breathe and to increase the tension during the near-misses in the chase. But Morten Tyldum is careful never to let these scenes drag or otherwise interfere with the fun. This steady hand works in the film's favour in the opposite way: it gives off such a level of confidence that we don't ever get the sense that it would all fall apart if it did slow down.
The film also boasts great cinematography, courtesy of John Andreas Andersen. The opening section is incredibly stylish, with a crisp, glossy feel akin to The Social Network or the thrillers of Michael Mann. As the various plot points develop, Anderson matches the darker comedy with harsher and nastier tones, turning the colour palette right down and lightening the blood in a realistic manner. What little special effects there are in the film are also effective thanks to Andersen's work; we know full well that a real dog wasn't killed in the film, but it looks so real that you do stop and wonder, if only for a second.
On top of any visual similarities, the plot of Headhunters knowingly tips its hat to a number of other thrillers. There is a close comparison to the Coen Brothers' debut Blood Simple; both have a ruthless efficiency and are characterised by a balance of dark humour and dramatic tension. Making the main character an art thief immediately calls to mind The Thomas Crown Affair, though the film is tonally closer to the John McTiernan remake than the original. The truck sequence is arguably an elaborate reference to Steven Spielberg's Duel, and the scenes in the hospital are highly reminiscent of The Fugitive.
It's perfectly possible to enjoy Headhunters as a well-oiled machine, an efficient genre exercise. It is ultimately a film concerned more with pacing than with substance or insight, with the need to keep things moving occasionally working against its attempts at emotional depth. But it also has a few ideas of its own which set it apart from many of the films it is referencing or taking after. As clichéd as it is to describe it in such a manner, it is more introspective and self-aware than many British or other English-language thrillers borne from similar material.
One of the film's main themes is reputation. Roger Brown is a man whose life is built around both his own personal reputation and the belief that reputation is the only thing that matters. He steals priceless works of art to fund his lifestyle and make his wife happy, ensuring that they can be seen at the right parties and own the house that everyone wants. His job involves making judgements on people based on others' opinions of them and concerns about the images of the companies he serves. His numerous misfortunes as the film goes on find him discovering that this frame of mind is deeply damaging: his desire for status is ultimately what leads to the affair and his life falling apart around him.
The central conflict between Roger and Clas Greve furthers this theme, and asks a supplementary question about the importance of empathy over ambition. In their final showdown in Ove's house, Clas appears to have the upper hand. He stands lean and elegant against the shrinking, pathetic Roger, and ridicules him for lacking the power and will to keep the things he wanted. Roger then trumps him with the reveal about the bullets, signifying his motives were the better ones. He chose the love of his wife over the satisfaction of the deal, and after hours of running, he finally defeats his opponent.
Like many thrillers, Headhunters plays with the idea of deceitful appearances. Clas starts off as a distinctive client of Roger's, smartly dressed, straight to the point and a worthy opponent at the dinner table. He then becomes a ruthless soldier and hunter, then a soldier at the centre of a murky corporate deal, and finally a thrill-seeking killer comprising all of the above. On paper it all sounds fanciful, but Tyldum's direction holds the character and conceit together. Every time you think you can't go with a plot point, he pulls back and concentrates on making Clas threatening, thereby ensuring that we take him seriously even if we don't entirely understand him.
As I said before, Headhunters is more concerned with pacing than with substance. It doesn't contain any great insights into the world of art crime, or make any point like Killing Them Softly about how crime and big business are essentially built on identical foundations. But in spite of this it is supremely entertaining, possessing not just a good amount of pure spectacle (e.g. the truck scene) but also a number of rounded, believable characters underscored by excellent levels of tension.
Being a dark comedy, our empathy for Roger comes as much from wanting him to succeed as it does from a degree of pity for what happens to him. Aksel Hennie has the same distressed, worldly-worn look that Steve Buscemi has in Fargo, and Tyldum truly puts his character through the mill, forcing him to lug bodies around, sit on poisonous spikes, shave his head in a stream and even hide in human faeces to evade Clas early in the chase. The dark humour also extends to the supporting characters, with Ove's 'shootouts' with his favourite hooker and the recurring appearance of the two fat policemen.
The secret of Headhunters' success, as both a black comedy and a tense thriller, is its constant capacity to surprise us. Tyldum is brilliant at taking a comedic moment and turning it into a source of great tension - we go from watching Roger sink slowly into the latrine to Clas staring down at the toilet roll through which (unbeknownst to him) Roger is breathing. He also perfects this in reverse: we see Roger being followed by what he thinks is Clas' car, and he careers off the road, only to find that it was a tractor all along.
Headhunters is a brilliant darkly comic thriller which breathes new life into a sub-genre which is threatened with becoming stale. While it has a few silly or potentially ludicrous moments, it embraces its pulpy origins and uses audience familiarity to make its surprises stand out all the more. Morten Tyldum directs beautifully, with the perfect balance of terror and humour coming through with the efforts of a great cast. Above all it's a supremely entertaining piece of cinema which gives the Coen Brothers a run for their money.