Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Headhunters (Morten Tyldum, 2011)

Adapted from Jo Nesbo's book of the same title - Headhunters is a slick modern thriller that soon takes a turn into the grim before head-diving headfirst into the absurd. This story of botched jobs and double crosses amidst an icy cold Norwegian setting brings to mind the cinema of the Coen brothers. Yet through the story's cynicism comes a positive message of hope and rebirth. 

Roger Brown is a corporate recruiter (a headhunter) who also sidelines as a thief to support his over indulgent lavish lifestyle. He specialises in the theft of expensive pieces of art, mostly paintings. These possessions are merely stolen and resold by Roger for him to buy more needless items for his house and wife. As the film begins over the opening titles we have Roger narrating us through his image and the components that make up his hollow life. He is slightly on the short side (1.68 metres), far from handsome, and owns a house worth millions (which he cannot afford) alongside his beautiful wife. Roger believes his wife will only stay with him if he keeps her happy with expensive flattery, he will give her anything apart from the child she desires most. 

Roger is a character impossible to warm to, he has the aesthetics of a Bond villain and the personality comparable to Patrick Bateman of American Psycho (2000). His desire for a lifestyle beyond reasonable expense comes down to his insecurities; he feels physically incomplete but doesn't realise that any amount of money will fulfil him. His life is surface level and his wife just as much a painting on display as the ones he steals behind her back. He is in heaps of dept but this could all change. Through the opening of his wife's new art gallery Roger meets an associate of hers; an early retired businessman soon moving to Norway. Later, Roger's wife tells him later that this man named Clas Greve has inherited a rare original German painting possibly worth up to a hundred million. 

The story gets well underway once Roger has stolen said painting - what follows is a tale of betrayal, conspiracy, and violence as Roger's latest theft becomes his most difficult and possibly his last. 

The narrative takes so many twists and turns in such entertaining fashions it's impossible to go into anymore detail without spoiling what makes Headhunters such an enthralling ride. It is darkly comic to an obscene amount and genuinely shocking in places making for plenty of gasps. It could be a problem that the film shifts between various tones but it changes gears quite adequately and never tries to accomplish more than it can achieve.

As the double crosses keep coming and the plot takes unexpected turns, they don't come as completely surprising or ever feel like the centre piece of the film. The plot - though an interesting and expectation subverting one - is actually second to the journey we follow with Roger. As we're in Hitchcock territory here it's safe to call it a MacGuffin. We see a man struggling to maintain his 'perfect' existence in the beginning yet by the end he has been stripped of everything and put in excruciating circumstances. The film's ethos fits perfectly with Tyler Durden's speech in Fight Club (1999) about how, "it's only after you've lost everything, that you're free to do anything". Roger's shallow life is given meaning, he is born again so to speak, baptised in blood.

Not everything hangs together perfectly in Headhunters; despite the pleasure of certain characters becoming nicely developed after seemingly set up as window dressing, there are certain elements that don't quite gel such as a detective importantly introduced early on and reappearing without much to do later. He's an interesting and intimating presence but perhaps only through reading Nesbo's book will we find out as we're not nearly exposed to him for long enough. Headhunters isn't perfect but it's damn close - a thriller that actually thrills, entertains, and surprises as well as carrying emotional weight and an important message. How many thrillers can say they've accomplished that?

Expect an American studio to adapt their own Headhunters within the next 9 months.