(Dir: Morten Tyldum, 2011)
Over the last few years there seems to have been a pretty serious realisation in the UK that Scandinavians produce some good and interesting thrillers. Perhaps this started with the insane literary success of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and the whole Millennium trilogy, but in visual form it seemed to have been when the BBC adapted the Swedish detective show Wallander. Now of course this has extended as far as Hollywood and the US television networks. There’s definitely something very culturally interesting about the darkness hinted at within these works that are being exported, and fortunately those in the UK are in an enviable position to be exposed to them.
The latest export is Headhunters (Hodejegerne), the film version of Norwegian author Jo Nesbø’s novel. It follows Roger (Aksel Hennie), who to the world appears to be an extremely successful headhunter, living in a large modern house with his beautiful gallery curating wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund), but secretly he is an accomplished art thief, which unbeknownst to Diana allows him to barely keep her in the life she is now accustomed too. At a gallery opening he is introduced to the good looking and slightly mysterious Clas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and it’s from this encounter that Roger’s life rapidly begins to unravel beneath him.
The mark of a good thriller is that it should not only be thrilling, but that it keeps you guessing as to what’s really going on and how the protagonist(s) are going to deal with whatever situation they are put into. Headhunters excels at this. Roger is thrown into a number of different difficult scenarios as the film progresses, but manages to deal with them in a way that seems logical. He’s a flawed man, but that makes him seem more real and believable, and Hennie really does inhabit this character. It’s a great performance which allows the film to work. And like all good thrillers it does a great job of concealing the truth until the end, leading to a satisfying conclusion.
Fortunately the antagonist of the piece, Clas, is thoroughly convincing too. A believable background is established for him early on and allows for an element of menace to be prevalent. He’s also fairly likeable in the early parts of the film so you're never totally certain how much of a threat he really is to Roger. The film itself is well shot and directed, and I thought the score does a great job of building tension in some scenes.
Part of the appeal of the stories from this area of the world is that the culture seems to be deeply ingrained within them, for better or for worse of what that represents. To go back to the Millennium trilogy of films, their Swedish nature is inherently important to the stories and adds a deep layer of complexity and darkness. When Steve Zaillian wrote the Hollywood remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, he wisely kept the Swedish setting, as to divorce it from this would’ve meant removing something elemental to it. In Headhunters the Norwegian setting actually plays a less important role to the overall story, but it still gives it a certain rawness and mystery, which adds something to the mix. Ultimately though the story is good enough to be commutable to other languages, which means we should probably expect the Hollywood remake soon.
It’s fair to say that Headhunters is one of the best thrillers I’ve seen in quite some time. It perfectly fulfills what you need from the genre, by playing cat and mouse and keeping you guessing the whole way through, which is to say it expertly puts you in the position of the protagonist, who is a fascinating character. There is a darkness running through it and it's necessarily violent when it needs to be, which are points strongly in its favour. I’ve not read the book (nor any of Jo Nesbø’s novels) so I can’t say how closely it hews to that, but without any prior knowledge it stands more than adequately on its own two feet. It’s interesting because the day before watching Headhunters I saw The Cold Light Of Day, which is a pretty poor example of what a thriller should be. Perhaps that made me appreciate Headhunters even more, because it’s so satisfying to watch something that properly delivers.