Saturday, 7 April 2012

Insecurity: "Headhunters"

Right now, you could probably get someone to greenlight a big-screen adaptation of the greater metropolitan phonebooks of Stockholm, Copenhagen and Oslo, so thoroughly zeitgeisty are all things Scandinavian. The Norwegian thriller Headhunters, adapted from one of author Jo Nesbø's countless bestsellers, is a bold confidence trick of a movie, centring on a character who's something of a trickster himself. Our narrator Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) is a pipsqueak who admits that, at a mere 5'6" in stacked heels, he's had to compensate everywhere else: with a glossy modernist home, a fancy car, a tall Nordic goddess of a wife, and a mistress whom he hastily casts adrift at the first sign she's making plans after coitus.

The film frontloads all this flash - expensive production design, super-slick editing, women in various states of undress - in a bid to help us overlook the contrivance at the heart of
its central character: a corporate headhunter who, while packing his clients off to interview, breaks into their (generally well-appointed) homes to steal away with their artworks. That Morten Tyldum's film actually gets us to like this highflier is down to a combination of the funny-faced Hennie's very watchable performance, the character's juxtaposition with a far sleazier criminal associate (a bald security operative who uses his clients' cameras to tape him fingering Russian prostitutes) and a general sense that Roger Brown, who robs to maintain a lifestyle he could not otherwise afford, is heading for a fall. What's the Norwegian for schadenfreude?

The twists and turns that follow reveal our hero to be a far softer touch than we might first intuit: at one of his wife's gallery openings, he's introduced to the tall, handsome, broad-shouldered Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), a real alpha male, and furthermore one in possession of a rare Rubens that would cover the downpayment on Roger's dream home - for the latter has realised, mid-heist, that he actually wouldn't mind settling down properly. Unfortunately, Clas's background in military tracking, and his access to hairgel containing micro-transmitters (!), means this is unlikely to be happening any time soon.

You don't do as much repeat business as Nesbø has without some knowledge of how to construct a plot and characters who hold the attention from page to page, or of those elements (sex, violence, vivid set-pieces) that might be used to get us over humps and bumps in the narrative road. Evidence of the Nesbø wit comes through strongest in the middle stretch, where Roger is expected to fight a dog with his bare hands, and then has to flee the scene on the back of a haybale picker, his vanquished canine opponent hanging like a trophy from the prongs. Crucially, the plotting serves to humanise the central character, Greve's relentless pursuit forcing Roger to downgrade to a shitty town car, shed his natty duds, and - in a literal lowpoint - descend into the steaming residue beneath an outhouse with only a toilet roll to use as a breathing tube.

Admirably, Hennie plays it all deadpan straight, and you conclude one of the problems the inevitable American remake will face will be finding an actor to inhabit this diminutive role in quite the same fashion. (Steve Buscemi would be the obvious physical match, but he may not get Hennie's odd vulnerability - or be the poster-friendly name mainstream thriller producers may be looking for, for that matter.) Much of the film proceeds in a similarly absurd manner, with an incipient strain of pulp misogyny evident in the treatment of the mistress in particular, but just compare something as straight-lined and turbo-charged as this to the manky likes of those recent Nic Cage vehicles Justice or Trespass, which aspired to the same pulpiness, and it's easy to see why the Scandies have the lock on the marketplace they do right now.

Headhunters is in cinemas nationwide.

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