BFI London Film Festival Review: Headhunters (2011)

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau in Headhunters (2011) Movie Image BFI

The current wave of popular Scandinavian cinema continues with “Headhunters” from director Morten Tyldum, previously responsible for “Buddy” and “Fallen Angels”. The film was adapted from a novel by award winning and hugely successful Norwegian crime author Jo Nesbø, who currently has several of his books making their way to the screen, and following a very profitable domestic box office run has already been snatched up for a wide international release and a Hollywood remake.

Aksel Hennie (“Max Manus: Man of War”) plays Roger, a highly successful corporate headhunter who makes up for his slight height deficiency by living beyond his means, with a lavish lifestyle, huge house and stunningly beautiful wife. Unable to afford all this on his wage, he keeps the wheels turning by stealing works of art on the side, targeting the people he interviews. With his wife pressuring him for a baby and his debits piling up, Roger thinks that all his problems have been solved when he meets the suave Dane Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, recently in the hit “Game of Thrones” series), who seems to be the perfect fit for the GPS company CEO position that he is recruiting for and who just happens to have an extremely valuable painting in his apartment. Needless to say, things don’t go as planned, and he soon finds his life spiralling violently out of control and he ends up on the run, hunted and framed for murder.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Synnove Macody Lund in Headhunters (2011) Movie Image

The first thing to note about “Headhunters” is that it’s really not the film that most viewers might have been expecting. Certainly, anyone anticipating the kind of gritty, slick crime drama suggested by the trailer is likely to be more than a little surprised by its leftfield plotting, shifts in tone and general lack of either scruples or logic. This actually turns out to be a very good thing, as the film is a highly creative and unconventional affair that keeps the audience guessing through its sheer oddness. At the same time, the film manages to maintain a coherent and well constructed narrative, and though clearly nonsense, achieves enough suspension of disbelief to weave its way around the many potholes with an amusingly cavalier flair. With a great deal of going on and a dizzyingly fast pace, the film is gripping and exciting throughout, and despite the fact that it flirts constantly with ludicrousness and features a protagonist who by all rights should be unlikeable and a villain with a bizarrely self-defeating scheme, it makes for a tight, incredibly entertaining ride.

Director Morten Tyldum mainly succeeds by ignoring the niceties of common sense and by going full speed ahead, heaping on the twists with scant regard for realism. This works very well, and the film scores highly as a hilariously escalating comedy of errors, with Tyldum pushing Roger from misfortune to misfortune, leading to a series of imaginatively designed set pieces that are as tense as they are daft. Crucially, the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, and while straight-faced rather than played explicitly for laughs, it was clearly made with an awareness of the silliness of it all, which of course only serves to make it even more fun.

Aksel Hennie in Headhunters (2011) Movie Image

Things do get pretty intense, with a good few instances when the film suddenly switches from near light-heartedness to moments of death and danger, a number of sympathetic supporting cast members and random passersby being bumped off in surprisingly cruel fashion. Added to this are some flashes of brutal violence and genuinely shocking gore that would almost be at home in a horror film, making for a visceral air throughout and helping to keep the viewer wondering where it will go next.

As a result, “Headhunters” is one of the most enjoyably demented genre films of the year, mixing thriller and darkly comic elements to great effect. It’ll be interesting to see how the Hollywood remake pans out, as whilst there’s nothing particularly controversial or cultural here, it is a bit difficult to imagine the same kind of determined, full-blooded silliness being maintained in the quest for a wider audience – time will tell, though in the meantime the original is certainly more than enough.

Morten Tyldum (director) / Lars Gudmestad, Ulf Ryberg (screenplay), Jo Nesbø (novel)
CAST: Nikolaj Coster-Waldau … Clas Greve
Aksel Hennie … Roger Brown
Julie R. Ølgaard … Lotte
Synnøve Macody Lund … Diana Brown
Baard Owe
Joachim Rafaelsen
Kyrre Haugen Sydness … Jeremias Lander

Buy Headhunters on DVD