The antihero can be a difficult thing to pull off. If your protagonist is doing things that would normally be considered the province of the villain, you need to work extra hard to make the audience empathise with them or see them as heroic. You can get round it with something like someone’s family being attacked so they have a reason to go out for revenge, but what if your ‘hero’ is actually a bit of an asshole?
That’s what we have in Headhunters, but it actually manages to make it work, which is no small achievement.
The film’s based on a book by Norwegian author Jo Nesbo – best known for his Harry Hole books – and comes along as part of the current wave of interest in Scandinavian thrillers. Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie) works as a corporate Headhunter. Despite his high-powered job and being rather arrogant, he’s a very insecure fellow (which makes more sense than it might appear). He feels he’s too short, not handsome enough and generally inadequate to keep his beautiful wife Diana (Synnove Macody Lund) by his side. As a result he supplements his income by stealing valuable paintings and replacing them with knock-offs.
This allows him to maintain a lifestyle that would otherwise be beyond his means, but which he feels he needs so that his wife can have everything she might want. And he does all this despite the fact he’s actually cheating on his spouse. Like I said, he’s actually a bit of an ass (and it doesn’t help that actor Aksel Hennie look oddly like the love child of Ron Weasley and Vladimir Putin).
Roger has turned robbery into a refined art, but with the bills stacking up, he needs a big score. He thinks he’s found one when he’s introduced to Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), who he is told owns an incredibly valuable painting by Rubens, which was thought lost after the Nazis looted it during World War II. Roger lures Clas in with the promise of a top job, while actually using the info he gleans from their meeting to find a good time to rob him. However Clas is not your usual marks, as he’s ex-military with a speciality in tracking people.
Before he knows it, Roger is massively out of his depth in an ever deepening conspiracy that puts not only his own life at serious risk, but also that of everyone around him, and where art theft is the last thing on anyone’s mind.
I have no doubt that Headhunters will fail for some people because they won’t be able to get past the fact Roger is an ass. While his insecurity and sense of humour make him somewhat sympathetic, there’s nevertheless a sense of chickens coming home to roost and Roger being someone it’s difficult to 100% root for. Indeed one of the things the movie plays with is whether Roger’s wife wants him dead, and it sets thing up so that if she does, it seems as justified as it is the ultimate betrayal.
It’s a character balance the film doesn’t always pull off, especially when innocent people start dying. It’s also tough to know at the end if the idea of redemption is more illusionary than real – all the symbols are there of somebody being brought through the fire to a new self-awareness, but it’s difficult to tell whether Roger genuinely becomes less of a fool or not. However the ride is entertaining, the plot ever twisting, and while it is essentially sleight of hand, Headhunters does a good job of continually pulling the rug out from under what you think is happening.
The film is helped tremendously by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau as Clas, who is as charming as he is scary. Indeed, it’s his character who ultimately makes the film work. The reason for that is that while Roger may be an ass, he’s more misguided than evil, while Clas is all charm and attractiveness on the surface, hiding an utter single-minded ruthlessness. They are opposites and it’s this character dynamic that makes the film succeed. It’s a miracle it does, as pitted against virtually anyone else it would be tough to care what happened to Roger. It doesn’t hurt either that the movie has a sense of humour and offers a few decent laughs, becoming more and more a black comedy as it goes on.
I’d quite like to know whether Scandinavia has been making these fun thrillers for years and we’re only paying attention now, or whether the likes of Dragon Tattoo and The Killing have allowed a lot more to be made. Either way, while not every thriller coming out of Scandinavia is a masterpiece, Headhunters is great fun.
Overall Verdict: A fun, entertaining knot of a thriller which pull off the tough feat of working solely due to the mix of personalities.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac