The slick thrills, droll humour and visceral violence of other recent hits are all present and correct in Headhunters, the latest in a stream of breakout successes from Scandinavia. Another adaptation from the region’s seemingly inexhaustible list of thriller writers, Morten Tyldum’s take on Norwegian scribe Jo Nesbo’s hit novel about a headhunter come-art thief pursued by a seemingly unshakeable enemy is exactly the sort of film that would be incredibly tedious in American hands, yet charms through the typically Nordic virtue of refusing to take itself too seriously.
Rejecting audience expectations of the devious-yet-noble lead, Headhunters sees slimy corporate talent spotter Roger Brown (a convincingly desperate Aksel Hennie) moonlighting as an art thief in order to pay for his expensive lifestyle. Crippled by debts as well as his chronic self doubt, his life unravels when he rejects a suave, handsome ex-Marine from a prospective job after he discovers his wife’s infidelity, only to be relentlessly pursued by his new nemesis through a seemingly never-ending series of chase sequences, daredevil escapes and near-death experiences.
What impresses about Headhunters is, for the most part, the grisly sense of fun with which Tyldum sets about punishing his seemingly amoral lead. Swimming through sewerage, suffocating between two dead, obese policemen, and having to shed his beloved hair are just some of the humiliations thrust upon Brown, and all with a wickedly Scandinavian sense of fun and a taste for gross-out physical punishment. By the time Brown’s mistress attacks him with a kitchen knife, Headhunters has successfully created a ludicrous, Kafkaesque world that seems to exist for no other reason than to relentlessly punish Hennie’s character.
Blessed with a cast of colourful supporting players – including a gun-fetishist prone to flirtatious shootouts with his prostitute lover – Headhunters’ first hour is nothing short of a hoot. While increasingly weighed down by a misguided need to both explain Brown’s ordeal and provide him with a redemptive character arc, the momentum created by the film’s first two acts is enough to carry the action to the finish, even if the film will remain more memorable for its sense of vindictive glee than for any other aspects of its drama.
It remains the case, then, that Headhunters works best when punishing its lead excessively, continuously, and for no apparent reason. In its generic, tepid final act, Tyldum’s film misplaces its nasty streak, challenging us to be content with its characters’ lot even as the relentless drive of Scandinavia’s new cottage industry – Martin Scorsese will be the next to adapt Nesbo’s work with The Snowman – suggests that this may be just the beginning of a series of lurid tales just like this one.