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Headhunters (2012) has been on my radar for a while now, partly because it’s a slick, stylish foreign thriller and that’s kind of my jam, and partly because it involves a few people who went on to achieve much greater notoriety. These include the director, Morten Tyldum, who also helmed last year’s The Imitation Game, and costar Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, better known as Jamie Lannister from Game of Thrones.
It begins as an art-heist movie: Roger (Aksel Hennie) uses his position as a headhunter for a large corporation to scout his potential targets: wealthy executives with expensive art lying around. There’s a humorous sequence at the beginning in which Roger brags about the expensive piece of art on the wall behind him and challenges the worth of his client’s art collection. When the client retorts that he owns an even more valuable piece, all Roger has to do is ask a few follow-up questions about the client’s personal life to find out if anyone’s likely to be at his home during the day.
At a gallery opening, Roger’s wife introduces him to Clas (Coster-Waldau), who owns a priceless Rubens and looks like the perfect new patsy. The Rubens will be moved to a museum in a few days so Roger and his sidekick act quickly to nab it. The theft goes according to plan except for two important problems: first, Roger finds his wife’s cell phone among a tangle of sheets at Clas’s apartment; and second, Clas is now trying to kill them.
If I had a scale of movie insanity where Brief Encounter is a 1 and Hausu is a 10, Headhunters would be about an 8. The things Roger endures in order to hide from Clas and get his revenge are some of the most mind-boggling trials I’ve ever seen inflicted on a fictional character. His physical deterioration over the course of the film goes from dark humor, like when he hides in a hole full of excrement, to just plain dark—in an agonizing sequence, he survives a horrific car crash and has to trade clothes with one of his fellow victims who is newly deceased and disfigured beyond all recognition.
The Rubens turns out to be a macguffin as the scope of the story expands to cover innovations in GPS technology and a couple of military special forces groups. The film ends up hinging on conspicuous consumption and the loyalty or lack thereof of the two women in Roger’s life: his wife Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund) and his lover Lotte (Julie Ølgaard). As interesting as it is to attach this much importance to the hero’s relationships, I wish the two women had some function in the film beyond being potential traitors.
I also found myself ambivalent about whether I wanted Roger to come out on top. He’s endearingly resourceful as an art thief at the beginning of the film, modestly admitting that he’s no Adonis but that his skills make up for it. But his cockiness about his ability to steal Clas’s painting, combined with his hypocrisy about his wife’s potential infidelity, made me want to see him taken down a peg or two. And he certainly eats shit in this film, both literally and figuratively. But Clas isn’t any more villainous than Roger, and he arguably causes less destruction and loss of life. I wasn’t so much rooting for Roger to win as I was for the insanity to continue.
– Ashley Wells watches too many movies and welcomes recommendations for more. Leave her one here or on Twitter: @ashleybwells. Spoiler alert: she has already seen Troll 2.