To Kill a Thief, by Rita Cannon
I don’t know if it’s the tense political climate, the austerity brought on by economic hardship, latent fears about global warming and the end of the world or what, but a lot of thrillers have been awfully grim lately. From the steely severity of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo to the loud, oppressively gritty mayhem of Safe House – seriously, that movie felt to me like the director throwing sand in my face while Denzel Washington laughed – it sometimes feels like these movies are competing for the title of Least Fun To Watch. Some thrillers need to be this way in order to work (I doubt Dragon Tattoo could have pulled off a lighter tone), but others benefit from occasionally cracking a smile. The new Norwegian film Headhunters is in the second category, and the perverse glee it takes in its own craziness makes it feel like a breath of fresh air.
Based on the popular novel by Jo Nesbø, Headhunters follows the strange exploits of Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), an outwardly smug corporate recruiter who effectively hides his true identity as an art thief and quivering mass of insecurities. Short and not conventionally handsome, Roger is constantly terrified of being left by his wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund), a statuesque beauty who owns an art gallery. He attempts to prevent this by showering her with expensive gifts, but when it proves too much for his salary to cover, he supplements his income by stealing priceless art from the CEOs he meets at his day job. Their candor in high-pressure interviews allows Roger to gather personal information about them, and basically case their houses without having to set foot inside. This whole thing is going okay, but it’s getting a little exhausting, so when Roger hears that Clas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a CEO and former mercenary, might have a long-lost Rubens in his possession, he goes after it in the hope that this monster payday will set him up for life. The heist does not go as planned, and two things become quickly apparent: Roger and Diana have both had affairs, which turn out to be linked to Roger’s criminal life in ways neither of them realized; and former mercenaries are not the most mellow or forgiving people when crossed.
The movie has two speeds: confident strut and panicked sprint. The beginning of the film is very much the former. It has the bright look and breezy pace of a romantic comedy, which makes it all the more striking when things go really crazy, really fast. As twisted and violent as the story gets, Headhunters‘ greatest strength is that it never completely abandons the idea of levity. The most harrowing chase and fight sequences are still shot through with wit, and a lot of memorable set pieces take the form of rather sick jokes. Roger is not a typical action hero type, so his daring escapes usually involve quick thinking or dumb luck – in one scene, he survives a serious car crash only because he happens to be sandwiched in the backseat between two obese identical twins.
This is not to say that it’s all wacky, empty fun. The fact remains that all this craziness is set in motion by one man’s crippling fear that his wife is too good for him. In addition to making the most compelling cinematic argument against infidelity since Fatal Attraction, this anchors the film to something real and recognizable. Roger’s most outlandish actions are easier to buy when they’re bolstered by motivations both short-term (staying alive) and long-term (saving his marriage).
Not everything that happens is strictly believable. There are one or two scenes in which Clas is way more sloppy than a trained killer should be. Even the basic premise raises a lot of questions that never get answered. Where did Roger get the skills and equipment required to be an art thief? Did he start out a criminal and then go straight, or get into after he was married? Is there a course at the Learning Annex for that? The ending is also a little too tidy considering the unholy amount of chaos that’s been unleashed. A final voice-over goes to great lengths to explain how everything falls into place, but I couldn’t follow it. Still, the point of Headhunters isn’t where you land, but the wild ride taken to get there, and that part of the film definitely delivers.