I knew very little about Headhunters going in, and possibly even less when I left. Sweden may be the go-to destination for thrillers right now, but judging by this film, Norway don’t seem to be taking their neighbours’ successes terribly seriously. Morten Tyldum’s film takes everything that made the likes of Dragon Tattoo a hit and turned them up to their most ludicrous extremes. It’s barely comprehensible, but all the more fun for it, like the Coen Brothers on crack, with a side-order of herring.
Here’s my attempt at summarising the plot: Roger Brown is a business head-hunter by day, using the contacts he makes at work to pick targets for the art robberies he performs at night. He does this to keep his attractive wife in earrings and bed, all the while twitching about his lack of height. Inevitably, a tall, implausibly handsome and super-intelligent businessman comes into the picture, who also happens to have a priceless painting waiting to be nicked in his dead aunt’s flat. Roger half-inches said painting, only to discover that its owner is not only tall, implausibly handsome and super intelligent, but also completely insane and unstoppable in his desire to hunt down and kill the least deadly game of all. ROGER.
From there, things start to get a wee bit strange.
Rocky is often criticised for its protagonist taking a beating which no human being could ever realistically endure, but Sly Stallone might want to direct his detractors in the direction of Headhunters, where poor Roger is subject to a near-constant barrage of brutal humiliations. There’s no time to stop for logic when there’s more Roger abusing to be done. If that sounds like a dirty euphemism, director Tyldum does take an almost fetishistic delight in setting up new ways of delivering industrial quantities of hilarious agony. Considering how many films at this year’s LFF have offered various states of human misery – 360 being a circle of infidelity and missed chances; Coriolanus being a man destroyed by his refusal to compromise; Hara-Kiri showing a family torn apart – Headhunters is a blessed relief as a reminder of the funny side of immeasurable physical and emotional torment.
The movie’s greatest success is in juggling comedy, suspense and heart all at once, without compromising one to fuel another. The brutality that Roger endures is comic in its intensity, but played with a straight face so there is still plenty of tension and he comes out of it sympathetically, rather than as a soulless punching bag. When he confesses his fears to his wife, what could be cloying sentiment is instead a rare moment of openness that, while not quite touching, at least feels honest and deserved. Star Askel Hennie, who looks like Steve Buscemi had a love child with Christopher Walken’s Max Zorin, seems on the verge of tears throughout. Its a remarkable achievement to keep the audience on the side of such a spiteful, insecure character.
The other characters don’t get off quite so well, rarely developed beyond functioning as devices to bring about the next plot twist. The question over the loyalties of the two women in Roger’s life is never treated with any greater subtlety than them either being philandering mega-biatches or heavenly blonde protectresses. Clas, the villain, is so devoid of any form of goodness that even Roger admits to not quite being able to believe such a man exists. (I like to think this is a pop at how Steig Larsson’s villains are similarly irredeemable, albeit rarely quite having so much fun as Clas). In a way it’s not really a problem, because this is a fairly cartoonish sort of world to begin with, but the absence of a single semi-realistic character – anyone going through what Roger does is instantly disqualified from realism – makes the world feel just a smidgen too insubstantial to elevate the comedic and emotional impact of the violence to the ultimate level.
I’m not going to spoil anything, because this is a film where the biggest laughs – and there are some huge ones – come from shock value, but fans of the Final Destination series should find some way of seeing this as soon as humanly possible. It achieves everything that series aims for, albeit with a single man taking the full brunt of the hilarious violence over and over again, but with a much defter touch in creating suspense. The story doesn’t make an ounce of sense and the wrap-up ending takes the self-aware parody too far, but Headhunters (a title with at least three meanings) is this year’s Cold Fish: if you just go along with it, you’ll be laughing (and wincing) so hard that the implausibilities and confusion just become part of the fun.