Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie, Last Knights) is Norway's most successful “headhunter” - a man who specializes in bringing highly-qualified candidates to high-profile jobs – but his real hobby is art theft. Roger has stolen dozens of expensive paintings from his clients, and uses the money from these paintings to fund an extraordinarily lavish lifestyle. He has a large home, a swanky sports car, a gorgeous girlfriend (Synnove Macody Lund) – the world is his oyster. Alas, Roger spends his money as quickly as he gains it, and now he needs another big score to pay off the massive debts he has accumulated. Eventually, he finds the perfect target: Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Game of Thrones), a charming, handsome executive who happens to be the owner of an extraordinarily valuable Rubens.
The art heist is successfully carried out, but Roger makes an upsetting discovery in the process of removing the painting from Clas' home: his girlfriend's cell phone is sitting next to Clas' bed. The revelation wrecks Roger, but he has precious little time to process the matter: within the next 24 hours, Clas starts trying to kill him. Does Clas know that Roger took the painting? Does Clas know that Roger knows about the affair? Or is this about something entirely different?
Up to this point, Morton Tyldum's Headhunters (the Norwegian thriller that earned Tyldum a chance to direct the Oscar-nominated biopic The Imitation Game) is tense and compelling. It establishes a memorably wormy main character, an intriguingly cold-blooded villain and a cool, absorbing atmosphere. However, once the action begins, the tone changes dramatically and the film slowly begins to transform from a tense, Coen-esque thriller into some sort of absurd, excessively violent horror-comedy. This begins as the kind of film in which powerful men attempt to one-up each other using subtle forms of social posturing, but eventually becomes the sort of film in which a man covered from head to toe in excrement murders an annoying dog with a tractor.
I don't take issue with the way the film plunges headlong into absurdity, but it's a little disappointing that the leap is made so gracelessly. The best films along these lines benefit from the sort of clockwork precision that puts knots in your stomach. Headhunters is bloody and energetic, but it doesn't have enough self-control to maintain the consistently gripping suspense this sort of thing demands. Even more frustratingly, the film isn't willing to commit to its gleeful savagery – the final fifteen minutes or so turn sentimental in a manner that seems to run contrary to rest of the film's spirit. The sentimentality might have worked if we actually cared about Roger, but it's hard to get too emotionally invested in a scuzzy guy whose chief virtue is being less terrible than the people trying to kill him.
Many of the supporting players feel underdeveloped (particularly the female characters, who tend to be treated as prizes for the film's macho warriors), but both of the leads do fine, complex work. Hennie successfully essays a man who seems to be working hard to compensate for his less-than-imposing physical stature (he's 5'6”), while Coster-Waldau offers an intriguing variation on the sort of understated confidence that he brings to Jamie Lannister. Many shots are framed to make it look as if Coster-Waldau is towering over Hennie, and the former's unwavering resolve has a way of cutting right through Hennie's usually-successful posturing. Their wobbly, occasionally embarrassing struggle for the position of alpha male is the film's most reliably entertaining thread.
The beginning is better than the middle and the middle is better than the end, but at least there are plenty of interesting moments along the way. Tyldum struggles to maintain a consistent tone (or even a logically evolving one), but he's pretty good at serving up compelling individual sequences. There's a terrific sequence in which a man's fate is dependent on his ability to spell a person's name correctly, and a few bursts of violence that prove genuinely surprising. Headhunters offers memorable moments of humor, tension, shock and emotion, but the balance between these elements isn't quite right. The right ingredients are here, but Tyldum occasionally uses the wrong measuring cups.
Rating: ★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 101 minutes
Release Year: 2011