Headhunters has high demands for its audience. I don’t mean to say this thriller has a impossibly labyrinthine plot, or unlikable characters. Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum is demanding when he escalates the action into the extreme, forcing us to trust whether he can pull this off. And with an infectious strain of unexpected dark humor, he nearly does.
Looking like the spawn of blonde Christopher Walken and Steve Buscemi, Aksel Hennie stars as Roger, a suave businessman who leads a double life. His lovely home is not nearly as beautiful as his wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund). He works as a recruiter, the kind of top operative who finds the best candidates for his company. Roger is also in debt, so he supplements his income in an ingenious way. When the candidates are meeting with his coworkers, Roger breaks into their home, replacing a work of art with a replica. His accomplice Ove (Eivind Sander) deletes any electronic evidence of the theft. It’s a pleasant arrangement, and then Clas (Game of Thrones’ Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) enters his life.
With improbably chiseled good looks, Clas is a piece of work. After developing innovative tracking software for the military, a GPS manufacturing company hired Clas to help run the company. Roger meets him by accident, and two things make him seem like an ideal client. He has quit the GPS company to look for employment elsewhere, and he has a long-lost Munch lithograph in his Oslo apartment. The opportunity is just too good for Roger, so he arranges the meeting and theft. Terrible, terrible things happen to Roger after the robbery, forcing him to debase himself and think on his feet.
The screenplay Ulf Ryberg and Lars Gudmestad is shrewd in the way it introduces its characters. It takes time before we warm to Roger since he’s a criminal who also cheats on his wife. Roger also treats his mistress Lotte (Julie R. Ølgaard) with scorn, his unwavering self-interest nearly makes him unlikable. The crucial turning point is when Roger starts to arrange the theft from Clas, and before he does, we see the warning signs that the job has disastrous consequences.
The lengthy middle chase, where Roger cannot comprehend what is happening to him, recalls the Coen brothers in the way that develops toward the absurd. When a man must dispose of multiple bodies and wade through shit that’s up to his eyeballs, the sympathy for him is instinctual. The long getaway sequence has so much violence and implacable logic that it gets to be funny, yet we still care about its outcome. Hennie deserves a lot of the credit; he is not a typical leading man, yet his terrified, bug-eyed look is how Headhunters grips the audience. At one point, Roger sobs out of pain and self-pity, and the scene is as harrowing as any super-serious drama.
Roger figures out the plot against him, of course, and his method of solving it is where Tyldum has his missteps. Early scenes introduce extraordinary plot contrivances, whether it’s a camera or an improbable technology, relying on them to explain the action-packed middle. Plot machinations like this are so complex they require the story to go on hold so characters can clarify what precisely happens. Even the use of a romantic sub-plot cannot district from the overabundance of explanatory dialogue. For about forty minutes, Headhunters is a thrilling black comedy. The price it pays for its imagination, unfortunately, is a relatively slackened conclusion.